Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."


Toward an ecology of peace 3/24
     The writing teacher

We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have found. To find it, we need to realize that it is not found in some utopian absence of conflict. Peace is the supreme achievement of human intelligence precisely because of the powerful oppositions that it brings into balance.

Peace is an energetic engagement with trouble more often than it is trouble’s absence. We understand the goodness of the great works of peace that are among us–good hospitals, good schools, productive factories, active charities–because we have experienced illness, ignorance, poverty, and harm. As we labor and organize to mitigate our trouble, we feel peace when we feel a certainty that, as in a Shakespeare play, evil has limits and as long as good people place their lives in the balance it will not prevail. We are at peace when we sense that our efforts, however small and feeble, will be enough, and that forces larger than we see are working with us. Like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, it isn’t necessary for us to be big and powerful--it’s just necessary for us to be good.

We learn we need to be good as we come to sense that we are up against something that wants things torn down, wants nations at war, wants families in turmoil, wants friendships to fall apart, and ultimately wants us dead. The forces of destruction, decay, and disorder that surround us are nothing so puny as to be escaped or destroyed. They are built into the fabric of our existence.

And yet, we also learn that lashing out at what frightens us often makes things worse. Learning to do good is part of how we get free of fear. One of the trickiest patterns in a tricky world is the way that the urge to destroy evil–meeting it on its own level then getting trapped there–can often become evil’s most powerful tool. Eric Hoffer noted in True Believers that the worst evil in history has been accomplished by people who believed they were righteously engaged in destroying evil. Hitler gloated that totalitarian systems were invincible because they forced their opponents to imitate them.

Seeing how the fight against evil so readily becomes a form of evil itself, some people have tried to evade the dilemma by opposing the concept of oppositions itself, hoping that conflict can be resolved philosophically, by abandoning belief in such dualities as good and evil.

But it doesn’t work.

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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey

What’s wrong with these kids? 2/24
     The way of the teacher

The Roman soldiers who killed a teacher two thousand years ago killed people often–mostly rebels, robbers, and thugs. The system of which they were a part, the Roman state, had taught them to take honor in their work defending the order. They knew little or nothing of the dirty, bloodied commoner, or what he stood for, or who he threatened. The teacher understood this and prayed for their forgiveness, noting “they know not what they do.”

Though Jesus was caught in an evil pattern, he wasn’t tricked into thinking that most of the people who harmed him were his enemies. They were also being harmed by the patterns he had tried to change. Those patterns are still among us. They came slowly into focus for me in a small mountain town in western Montana, but it could have been anywhere. It was simply the world.

I now see the same patterns on a much larger scale in the nation and the world and on a smaller scale within families and individuals. These patterns replicate themselves, and the more force we throw against them, the more powerful they become. They are nearly alive, taking their vital force from us, from our efforts to destroy what we see as evil.

We live in troubled times, among disorderly nations. The evening news is dominated by stories of wars that seem unstoppable. Our cities are disordered, and we hear more and more of crime, gangs, and homelessness. Our families are disordered, and we read that children are being born to single girls who are children themselves. Our personal lives are disordered, and the mental health business is booming. It seems that even nature is disordered, as storms and floods may be increasing in frequency and severity.

In all the noise, we hear passionate speakers clamor for attention, proclaiming that our schools no longer work and that our children are not getting the education they need, but there is little agreement about what sort of education they do need, and calls for better schools bog down in contention, becoming part of the troubled pattern.

Meanwhile, children go on learning what we teach, though not necessarily the things we say in classrooms. The fundamental curriculum for schools is often visible at its board meetings, in the bantering stories told by teachers in the lounge, and in the disciplinary code that is practiced (rather than the one that is written down). The level of honesty, compassion, and concern for the truth that we demonstrate in such routine, everyday affairs is more educative, for good or ill, than the ambitious, idealistic rhetoric in official curriculum guides. How do we handle our disagreements? How do we talk about each other in small groups between classes or after meetings? What standards of evidence do we maintain for tales told about our opponents?

A couple of years after I resigned as principal, the managers of that school were still struggling with the same problems I had faced. They brought in specialists to teach conflict resolution skills because of an increasing number of fights between students, not to mention a maddening level of contention among staff and parents. The conflict resolution folks taught the latest skills from their field, but judging from the agenda of acrimonious disputes at board meetings, the patterns have proven resilient.

The administrators treated student fighting as a problem separate from the rest of the school operation, to be solved with its own little program. They didn’t see it as one manifestation of a much larger pattern. The school itself was a bundle of unrelated programs with fragmented and sometimes contradictory goals. Its leaders didn’t view the myriad problems holistically, considering what teachers were teaching in the history and literature classes about character and consequence, for example, or how disagreements were handled by administrators, or what values were encoded in the discourse at board meetings.

Of course, seeing that small problems are related to much larger problems can be daunting. A few months before, the superintendent had sued the teachers’ union because of their no-confidence vote in him. Meanwhile, the staff was engaged in its annual acrimony over contract negotiations. The union had suggested a work “slow-down,” in which no teacher would come before eight or stay to help students after four, and a “sick-out,” in which large numbers of the staff would call in sick. Their strategy was based, strangely enough, on faith that the school board members they reviled cared more about the education of children than did professional educators, and that the board would back down rather than see the children lose out. They were using kids as pawns to enrich themselves. And of course, it was quite true that some board members saw teachers as commodities to be bought and used as cheaply as possible. Enemies often come to resemble each other.

And there was much, much more. Groups of parents were campaigning to remove or reprimand a number of different coaches and teachers. At every level in the life of the school, champions of morality or diversity were speaking the language of anger. Each group believed their problems were caused by an enemy, so, of course, the combatants wanted institutional uniformity that would force their enemies to accept a better way. In their different ways, each of the sides wanted codes of acceptable language. Each wanted sanctions against deviance. Each wanted submission to their orthodoxy. They wanted to force things to go the way they were sure was right.

And in the midst of it all, the staff was directed, without intentional irony, to consider the question, “How can we get our kids to stop fighting?” The more interesting question would have been “How can we become a peaceful people?”

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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey

What about the next guy?
     A sense of belonging and school discipline

During third period today, the AP came on the intercom to announce that we’d had too many tardies after lunch as well as too much litter in the parking lot, and that if things didn’t improve, the campus would be closed. Today was the fourth day of school. I would have rather we waited till we could have face-to-face meetings with the kids where we focused on teaching more than on threatening.

The messiness of large numbers of teenagers has been on my mind. A couple days earlier, a student had started a small conversation with me at the end of seventh period, and I didn’t pay attention to students when the bell rang and they left. When I surveyed the room a few minutes later, I noticed that the class had left behind two empty water bottles and a few scraps of paper.

In class, we had been talking about the way people are shaped by the places they grow up. It’s a way of getting into American literature, much of which is the exploration of such questions as why did the world feel as it did to the Puritans and what led Thoreau to believe he could find answers to life’s basic questions by living by a pond in the woods?

So we’d been talking about such questions as, are kids growing up in a small Montana town likely to think and feel differently about some things than kids who are growing up in urban New Jersey? Are kids growing up in America likely to differ in some ways from kids growing up in Italy or China? We talked a little how rural and urban spaces affect us, and how religious beliefs and political realities shape us psychologically as well as socially.

So it seemed an easy step to put our little littering problem in the context of what sort of people we are. The next day, I talked for a couple minutes about what Japanese high schools were like. In Japan, when students come into the school, they stop at their lockers and change out of their street shoes into their indoor slippers. Before they go into a rest room, they change again into shoes that are only worn there.

I invited them to imagine a clean and orderly place that was kept that way not by threats of punishment so much as by habits of neatness and cleanliness.

Outside shoes locker at a Japanese high school.

The most vocal students expressed the opinion that Americans tended to be too laid back and in too much of a hurry for the Japanese shoe thing to work here, but they acknowledged that there was something nice about it.

I then moved on to suggest that the idea of cleaning up your own messes was quite American and quite common among us. When I was a little kid, my Dad took me to work with him. At the time he was driving truck on a highway construction project quite far away, so he stayed in a motel during the week and came home on weekends. I wasn’t in school yet, and it was my first time living briefly in a motel. For dinner, we had bar sandwiches. It was tiny town-- one bar that also served sandwiches, one motel, one gas station, and two churches. He took me into the bar’s restroom to wash up after the hard day’s work and before the pork chop sandwich. After I washed and dried my hands with paper towels, I started to leave. He stopped me and pointed to the water I’d splashed around the basin.

“What about the next guy?” he asked.

He told me that when he was in army during World War II, he learned quickly that when you were in places that a lot of people had to use, it was important to think about the next guy. In the army, real men didn’t leave messes for other people, though a few punks did. If people made messes and then just left them, pretty soon everyone had to live in a mess all the time. But if everyone just cleaned up his own mess, then the next guy always got to enjoy a clean spot at the lunch table or a clean sink in the rest room.

Chastened a little, I got a paper towel and wiped up my water splashes from around the sink.

Classrooms are a little like that, I pointed out to the class. If people trash them, then the next people who come in have to put up with other people’s messes. But if each class just makes sure they pick up around them before they leave, everyone can come into a place that’s neat and clean.

As I said, it’s only been a couple days, but the room has been neat at the end of each period. It won’t last, of course. But when someone gets careless or maybe a little rebellious, I’ll figure out who the individual is and then try more direct teaching to that person, maybe including punishment. After all, most of the kids aren’t creating messes.

But before I start chewing people out or threatening them or punishing them, I like to try simple teaching: we’re the sort of people who think about other people, and the sort of people who clean up our own messes.

Most successful groups control behavior less with rules and punishments than by having leaders explain the way we are and why we are that way. This is done simply but effectively with storytelling, as when the elder of a hunting tribe tells his story of tracking a wounded buck for miles through a swirling snow storm to finish the kill, making it clear even when it’s not explicitly stated that “we” are the sort of people who are bothered by an animal’s suffering, that “we” are a persistent and diligent sort of people, and that “we” do things the right way. Then when a youngster has to do something difficult--following a buck uphill in spite of fatigue and bad weather--he feels a bit of a glow inside and being a bit grown up and doing the right thing.

The more we create a community that means something the more kids and the more we make the meaning of that community central to our teaching, the more kids will want to join us and the less need we will find for punishment.

This doesn’t mean we can avoid punishment completely. It does, though, let us be clear that we punish as a way of defending a good community against bad practices that destroy community, which is a quite different than punishing to preserve our own control or because we don’t like people, which some kids think is what’s really going on. It helps keep punishment just and loving--part of our repertoire of teaching.

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©2008 Michael L. Umphrey

freedom and responsibility
     authors of their own lives

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.

“We are free to be the authors of our lives,” says Schwartz, “but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’” Maturity lies in deciding just that.

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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 3
     My tribe is separate from your tribe

Ethnic separatism in the guise of self-determination is one of the master narratives that organizes the lives of many students in today’s schools. This undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At bottom, ethnic warriors believe not in truth but in power. If they care about schooling, it is only because they see it as a technique of power. My faith as a teacher is that such people will be defeated in time by others who pay more attention to facts than to applause or credentials.

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood.
Ursula LeGuin

Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism or Native Pride, just as ignorant armies clashing at night are often more alike than different. The particular ethnicity the competing groups champion is different but the impulse to circle the wagons is the same. One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. The two sides inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ tales. The other side is their reality.

When you read the paragraph above, you quite likely began forming judgments about me based on your sense of where I stood on questions that affect you. Am I likely to strengthen or weaken cultural forces that worry you? Can you trust me to take care of the things that you feel are good? If I had power or influence, would I likely be a friend or an enemy?

Race has become so politicized that most of us have something to win or lose in the contests that go on and on, and so talking about race is nearly impossible without taking a side, except by sticking to description of what various sides say, do and believe.

Race is a complex topic, by which I mean we experience it on many levels, using many different methods of perception and analysis. When a sociologist gathers data about the behavior of many individuals to analyze statistically, he is viewing humanity at a different level than the physician who examines your white blood cells under a microscope. When we talk about race, some of us will think first and foremost about contemporary political contests, some will consider large questions of history and justice, some will think about family and blood relationship and the cultural bonds that outsiders never see accurately, and some will think about neighborhood taunts endured as a child.


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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 1
     Life is a market economy

As we have abandoned morality to the markets, fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals, or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.

The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean that they speak the truth.
Thomas Merton

The meaning of school is to get a well-paying job

Years ago when I was a beginning teacher, I read an elementary school newspaper in which the children had been asked why doing well in school was important. Even first graders reported that they should do well at school so they would be able to “get good jobs.� While the seven-year-olds that I know are far too intrigued by the world in all its aspects to believe that the main thing is getting and spending money, their testimony indicated they had heard this story so often it seemed self-evident.

Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to be nice and work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they’ll be losers.

Like most myths that have staying power, this one has quite a lot truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.

But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.� Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.�


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Montana’s future: the movie
     What destinies can teens imagine?

Epic, 2014, a flash movie, presents a vision of a possible future, one in which the New York Times no longer exists because of personalized media and disintermediated journalism. The 8-minute movie was put together by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson.

The movie is qutie effective, though the techniques it uses are well within reach of high school students. I would love to see a series of such films imagining possible futures for Montana, made by high schoolers.

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Montana Blogs
     Developing regional culture

Who knows where blogging will lead. My own hopes are that it will support a flourishing of regional culture, as more people realize they can write for families and local communities about things unlikely to draw audiences of the size needed for traditional publishing.

Right now there’s a lot of experimentation and learning going on. The technology is new and often strange, and many readers haven’t migrated from the morning paper or other forms of old media.

But it’s a form worth thinking about, and maybe taking a stab at yourself. My favorite website in the world is a family photo blog that our family does. Several of us post photos with brief captions. Recently, my seven-year-old grandson posted a poem he wrote about his great-grandmother a couple days after she died. It’s a place where we express (and in the expression develop) our notions of what our family is about. It’s important to us now, and I imagine it will be priceless a generation or two down the line.

My view is that every family needs its writers, photographers--its own literature and art--and we now have the tools to do this.

And not just families. Neighborhoods, towns, clubs and organizations. As I said, we are just at the beginning. Who knows what might be coming. It’s worth watching. Here are some of the blogs from Montana that made me feel good, for various reasons.

A Montana cattle rancher’s opinions and facts: I sometimes wonder if my cattle can read my mind. The cows were still out in the hills scrounging for feed and later in the week I was going to let them come down towards home. You will note the “wereâ€? in the statement. They decided to break the fence down and come home without any help. Luckily the next fence held long enough to move some other cattle around to let them the rest of the way down. I hate when I have to do things unplanned and in a hurry but we managed. We spent a while fixing everything and I am back under control for now. “Ifâ€? there are any cattle left in the hills I will let them work in if they want. The ones that came home will start getting a cake supplement now and I will hold off haying them. The hired man wanted to know if I was rewarding them for breaking the fence down and coming home. I told him “weâ€? were rewarding them for not breaking any more fence down than they did and patiently waiting while we moved some other cattle around before they came down. Got to look on the bright side.

Thoughts from the Middle of Nowhere

An anonymous blog about life in Montana, from the Livingston area: I love the hard-working, honest and friendly people of Montana. In gas stations here in the morning, you’ll find men standing around sipping coffee and talking. I love that when you sit and chat with the boys here in Montana, you don’t speak of geeky subjects like routers and USB cables and Perl code, we speak of manly things like cattle and fences and horses and hunting. And I love it that no matter who you talk to - you end up finding a link - it will turn out you know someone they know either through family, work, or school. I love being able to walk into a bar and know everyone in there and be greeted as a friend and a neighbor. Montanans have accepted me and my family here - they know that I’m “not from around here� but they accept me as a local and as a friend and I’ve been made to feel welcome here. I’ve lived in other states where you’re made to feel if you’re not a native, you’re trespassing - not so here, I’m made to feel welcome here.

Big Sky Blog

A Billings blog about politics, school board, and general topics: Once again the voters of Billings have shown that they want little (if anything) to do with funding SD2’s projects!
All of the funding requests were voted down and probably for good reason. The real reason? MISTRUST I’d say. That said, it is a sad day for the children who are going to suffer in the long run.
I am not against funding education but last night I had the opportunity to attend a focus group conducted by MSUB. Not only was it educational, but after two hours of round table discussion it is clear that the members of the SD2 could well learn a few things that would help them in actually getting peoples input rather than the shotgun approach that they have used in the past.
The Dean of the College of Technology (COT) along with the staff at MSUB are studying the “Community College� idea to expand the education process that more closely fits the NEEDS of both our young children coming out of High School as well as the non-traditional students who are either trying to make career changes or move up the economic ladder in a state the now ranks 44th in the nation…up from 45.
Until the School Board can come up with VALID and concrete PLANS I doubt whether they will ever be successful in getting any requests for money approved by the voters of Billings.

Views from the Rim

A photo blog of weekend outings around Great Falls: About three miles from the top I came on a car pulled off to the side of the road and the driver looking over the side into a steep ravine. I looked down and there was one of the trucks that had passed me dangerously on a curve. It was on its top. Luckily, none of the four guys in the car were hurt and they were able to climb out through one of the windows.

Out There with Tom

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What kids can learn studying past community disasters
     Houghton Creek Fire

Houghton Creek Fire poster

The kids in Libby are going to study the Houghton Creek Fire from 1984. The study of past community disasters has the potential for being a wonderful group inquiry for a team of adolescents.

Generally the stories and memories associated with such events are dramatic and vivid, and how older people remember and discuss such events can shape the emotional intelligence of youth, which is a primary governor of their conduct. Montanans tend to like to tell the stories of disasters they’ve experienced. This is because, in general, we acquit ourselves well. In disasters, we have a chance to demonstrate the strengths of our character. During a typical Montana disaster, you will see people acting with resiliency, ingenuity, persistence, courage, intelligence, and selflessness.

In my work as an EMT, I recently helped with a disaster when the balcony of a local bar collapsed, sending over 50 people to the hospital. As EMTs got to the injured, they were often waved away by injured people who requested that more seriously injured people be taken care of first. The Polson Fire Department and ambulance service quickly got to work. Lighting was arranged. A triage area was organized and the patients were treated and sorted. Cars were towed to create an efficient route for emergency vehicles to cycle through the scene. Equipment and supplies were passed freely among agencies. The most badly injured people were transported first, which is a more amazing feat than it sounds, considering the tangled mass of bodies in the dark that the first EMTs encountered. The primary topic of conversation after the incident was how well the numerous agencies cooperated. Though there were some of the usual communications challenges, there were no turf battles. People took direction, figured out solutions, and took action. After barely an hour, all the patients had been transported to several area hospitals.

In dinner tables around Polson after that incident, many young people no doubt heard their parents talking about what had happened. And in the hearing, they learned that we are the kind of people who admire toughness and intelligence and resourcefulness and duty and selflessness. We aren’t born valuing such strengths. We learn them from stories--both those we experience and those we are told. The informal storytelling that goes on in our families and neighborhoods is a more powerful force in shaping the ethical bent of our young people than are formal ethics classes, with their analysis of abstract problems.

And yet not all went well on that dark and chaotic night in Polson. The most notable problem was that police weren’t able to help as much as we would have liked, because there was a rash of fights between young men about whose friends were going to be helped first. These young people interfered with helping those who were hurt. The excitement made them want to show off and strut their stuff. Where did they get their ideas about how a human being should act during a crisis? I’ve seen enough self-indulgent and self-centered people on MTV and similar shows to suspect that such modeling has something to do with it.

In any case, it isn’t true that all disasters reveal good character. But they all reveal character, good or bad. It’s quite sad that many adult Germans today do not feel it is possible to teach young people there to take pleasure in their identity as Germans. Young people can learn from both good and bad examples of character, as long as the teachers are willing to make such judgments.

We are lucky that in most small Montana towns, when bad things happen, plenty of people reveal themselves to be the sort of people that make you glad to call them friends and neighbors.

There are many things young people can learn from studying community disasters. They can learn to gather information from archives and from oral interviews. They can learn to read historical photos. They can learn to analyze evidence and evaluate sources. They can learn how to weave reports and fragments into a coherent narrative.

But in all that, they can also learn what sort of people we are. What sort of action we admire. What sort of behavior we dislike. What choices we make when situations get hard. And they can glimpse the reserves of diligence and endurance that people are capable of, which can help any of us hold ourselves to higher standard than we otherwise might have thought possible.

And we don’t need to make a big deal out of it to teach these things. We just need to find the right people and let them tell their stories.

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