Amazon.com 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."

Finding hope in financial ruin
     The future of soulcraft

Since I don’t think the schools we have built are sustainable, I’m always looking for people who are thinking not about reform but about doing something entirely different. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, people find themselves with the opportunity to move in dramatically different directions, whether they choose it or not. It would be a shame if people busily got to work repeating our mistakes.

Jeffrey Polet in “Education as Moral Formation: A Localist Proposal” gives some thought to college education, but some of his thoughts might have salience for high schools as well. He argues that it’s not possible for an educational system not to encourage some view of the moral life, and that therefore some thought should be given to what virtues are intentionally cultivated. “Without encouraging the virtues of honesty, generosity, charity, industry, diligence, docility, and so forth,” he says, “it is hard to see how students would be capable of any intellectual work.”

He summarizes a talk given by Shawn Floyd of Malone University at Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Culture this month:

Floyd’s presentation focused largely on the role of the cardinal virtues (courage, justice, temperance, prudence) in developing exemplary intellectual practices. They are key to the intellectual habits that alone can lead to the awakening of the mind and to a functioning academic community; for only when these virtues are operative can we evaluate each other’s work (justice), or make the right sorts of decisions as to what students should or should not be subjected to (prudence), or learn how to affirm what we believe to be true (courage), and to avoid the temptations that distract us from the tasks at hand (temperance). These are examples of how the cardinal virtues ground all intellectual activity.

He notes that “one of the the things we learn from the Platonic dialogues is that philosophy is always a battle for the souls of the youth of the city.” But this doesn’t lead him to believe there’s much a modern school can do in the way of an intentional project aiming at soulcraft:

There are at least three barriers to such a project: 1) the ideological fracturing of the professorate and the loss of any shared tradition or beliefs; 2) the size and scope of the modern academy; and, 3) the reduction of the academy into the service of the modern state.

Variations of all three problems exist, in perhaps more pernicious forms, at the secondary level. Polet suggests pretty radical changes in the way the academy is organized but without any hope that such changes will be implemented any time soon. Still, there is hope of sorts:

At some point employers and prospective employees both are going to realize that a liberal arts education is not a prerequisite for many of the jobs that are out there. Given the careerist impetus of many of our students, such realization will lead to an immediate decline in enrollment. Coupled with our financial crises and demographic changes and the conclusion suggests itself: there are colleges that will not survive this storm. Once the rot of wealth is stripped away, there could be a renewed call for schools that shape moral character, not ones that ideologically indoctrinate. At that time, such suggestions might seem prescient.

Public schools, of course, are in quite a different position than colleges that must recruit students, at great expense to those students. Government funded and controlled institutions in other countries have managed to reach appalling levels of degradation without them failing, exactly. Failing inexactly is familiar territory, and it could continue in some form even through financial and intellectual ruin.

When I get tired of thinking about such things, I begin to wonder what happens as the proficiency rate required by NCLB gets to 100%, when young people with IQs of 65 have to test proficient at math and reading to prevent a school’s takeover by hordes of state-level bureaucrats, with their “walk through” clickers, their powerpoints, their surveys of disgruntled students, and their standardized templates for change.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The Ethics of Authenticity
     Cross posted discussion from EC

This is the first post in what’s intended to be a dialogue between Steve Shann and me and anyone else who cares to join in. We will discuss Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity, chapter by chapter, as we have the time and the inclination. It’s a brief book, but it treats a big topic: the disquiets of the modern age. Taylor is a professor of philosophy and political science, and his work has been quite influential. Cross posted from English Companion Ning.

_________________________________________________

With The Ethics of Authenticity Charles Taylor stepped into a rather noisy fray about whether modernity has been a good thing or a bad thing. Many pre-modern peoples lived in realities, or worlds, that had “given” moral orders that gave meaning and purpose to life. But those moral orders also limited their choices, sometimes in oppressive ways.

The main thrust of modernity has been to dissolve the authority of traditions, and so many view it as a welcome force of liberation.

But from the beginning others saw it as the cause of cultural decline, leading to a narrow narcissism where “liberated” individuals could see nothing larger or more important than their own desires. Allen Bloom, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, Christopher Lasch and others have spoken eloquently about the disquiets of modernity. We have heard much about a “permissive society” and the “me generation.”

Taylor acknowledges the truth of what they have said, but he believes it’s important to remain optimistic, and he believes he sees reason for optimism. He seeks a middle path between those who see modernity as decline and those who see it as liberation. He believes that both the “boosters” and the “knockers” of modernity are right–that our present condition includes much that is admirable as well as much that is frightening. Our best course is to try to develop the former and avoid the latter.

He has a Roman Catholic background, and he is well-schooled in modernity, and it’s not clear to me what, finally, he makes of either tradition. He seems to want to be thought of as “one of us” by both camps. I have some sympathy with that attempt. I grew up in a Christian cosmos but through much of my college and grad school periods I was somewhat in thrall to the modernists. Certainly I learned things from modernity that seem true to me, and thus are now part of the Christian way of seeing things that I haven’t abandoned. So I would like to see Taylor’s project succeed, to help me bring together aspects of my own mind that I can’t always harmonize. I’ll say a little about how well I think Taylor succeeds later.

For now, a quick synopsis of Chapter 1 might be enough. Taylor argues that the when modernity dissolved belief in the old moral orders it left us with three malaises: a loss of meaning, a loss of purpose, and a loss of freedom.

The loss of meaning was brought about by the fading of moral horizons which gave meaning to our actions. In a reality where the old moral order has faded and the individual has become primary, there appears to be little beyond the self that has meaning. It then becomes difficult or impossible for anything the self does to matter very much. Nothing is worth dying for. There are no real occasions for passion. We may end wanting little more than what Nietzsche called “pitiable comfort.”

The loss of purpose comes about through an “eclipse of ends” by instrumental reason. With no sacred order to constrain them, economic calculation and technological power combine to treat everything, including we ourselves, as raw materials for our projects. What other goals or purposes–what worthy ends–can withstand the logic of “cost-benefit” analysis? We have seen the danger to our environment when the logic of economic growth seemingly outweighs ordinary good sense, and we see it looming ahead as a centralized health care bureaucracy cannot help but “put dollar assessments on human lives.”

The loss of freedom follows from the elevation of the individual and the rise of instrumental reason. One can see the pattern in a modern city. Though modern cities were designed to work for private vehicles–seemingly in homage to individual choice–once they are built the individual has great difficulty living in a way that goes against the grain. The individual becomes an atom in a vast and complex system built to favor the individual, but this deprives the individual of any feasible alternative.

Even worse, people who see themselves as individuals committed to their own satisfactions will not want to participate vigorously in public life. If the government provides enough satisfactions, most people will pay little attention to what it does, preferring to stay home, pursuing private pleasures. Taylor cites Tocqueville, who said we could end in “soft” despotism with such outward forms of democracy as regular elections when in reality we have no control over an “immense tutelary power” that runs everything. In this view, “each citizen is left alone in the face of a vast bureaucratic state and feels, correctly, powerless.” Feeling helpless, the citizen withdraws even more, and the cycle of growing despotism continues.

That’s the dark view. Taylor claims that it is not inevitably how things need to go. Explaining the way forward is the task he sets for the rest of the book.

___________________________________________

To some degree, my concerns are different than Taylor’s. I’m a practitioner, a teacher who works with young people. While I’m interested in what philosophers have to teach, engaging in philosophical dialogue is only tangentially my work. I feel considerable urgency about what I can say, and how I should represent the world we face to young people who are buffeted by voices urging them in all sorts of directions. The dark side of modernity which Taylor deplores is often ascendant in public schools. In an earlier time, the school itself would have taken positions on the moral questions that are now in play. But as those questions have become controversial, schools have often simply retreated, leaving teachers without much in the way of guidance from the community or the school leadership. At critical moments, those whose assignment it is to lead are quiet.

Teachers are often on their own, with the understanding that there may be consequences for their own lack of silence. Teachers who believe that morality is simply a private matter may feel they are still too constrained by social pressure to conform to old teachings that are but fables. Teachers who believe in some traditional morality may feel they are no longer free to give young people the guidance they need.

I’ve been increasingly pessimistic the last couple of years that public education will be able to resolve the tension. My sense is that schools are trying to resolve the moral question by adopting workplace ethics as its model, which is to say that students will be taught that morality is mainly a matter of complying with the authorities on such questions as copyright infringement, nondiscrimination, or whatever the authorities decide is useful to support the project they are currently promoting. A good person will be one who pleasantly cooperates on the task as assigned.

Nonetheless, harder questions will continue dividing people until some groups decide to leave. Taylor believes that we can find in the modernist view grounds for greater agreement that might yet bring us together.

I’d love to hear what others think.

The full discussion:

Chapter 10
Chapter 9
Chapter 8
Chapter 7
Chapter 6
Chapter 5
Chapter 4
Chapter 3
Chapter 2
Chapter 1


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Living in Montana
     from The Lit Window (CSU)

I have crossed lives I wanted
and left them like adolescence
to be here.
                        At sunset I leave home
and climb and stand silent, layers
of dark gathering ways I’ve not yet been.
A hunted animal,
                                I am still, my skin
listening. In twilight, barbed wire
fades.
              The only map of here
is far away, forgotten in some file
in the fluorescent office
of a coughing man.
                                      A sudden elk
below me crashes from timber and pauses,
knee-deep in meadow, then leaps
soundlessly away.
                                      Perhaps unafraid.
The sky darkens and I linger
between the stars and the safe sparkle
of valley yard lights. If I could
I’d charm the cosmos, instead
of standing stilled, outside
a circle of wagons.
                                      I practice
not wanting luck, longevity, fairness,
success—not wanting what I can’t decide.
I pause at who I am. What—like a cougar—
shifts and tenses in the night around.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Teacher Evaluation
     From The Lit Window

I am saying that whatever Frost is talking about
he is also talking about something else--the place
where at any moment we might find ourselves
choosing among many things who we are.

Janet looks out the window. I remember the first time
her eyes opened to my showing, the pulse
when the words became poetry--delighted seeing
through pure shock. She smiles now

the smile friends share amid the crowded blunders
they also share. Craig looks at her then at me,
frowning, certain more has occurred
than he finds reason to believe.

I read another poem, throwing gentle hints that work
and don’t work like so many brilliant flies,
cast in the mist happening between cottonwoods
at the river’s edge in a quiet, transient dawn.

At the back of the room the principal is keeping track
of how often I pause and whether faces look up or down.
The truth is such an absolute code I cannot help him,
knowing all his data can never break it.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Discerning the rules of life in storyworlds
     Teaching narrative intelligence

I like students to practice seeing the way every story asserts a moral theory of the universe. It’s possible to think about moral issues in an objective way simply by asking what virtues characters employ to reach their telos and what sort of world results from the deployment of those virtues. I invite students to figure out, from the stories we read, what the rules of life appear to be.

Here are basic questions that help gain entry to storyworlds.

1. What is the main character’s telos at the beginning of the story? What’s her life about--what purpose or goals organize her action, her thinking?

2. As the character acts in response to conflict, what virtues does he exhibit? I’m using “virtue” here to refer to a strength from the character’s point of view. For a Spartan, ferocity might be a virtue. For Odysseus, skillful lying was a virtue. The reader’s judgments about such things can come later, but during the reading, try to understand the character’s view of what is good.

3. What consequences follow? How successful is the character at resolving the conflict in a way that fulfills his telos?

4. What turning points occur in the story--key moments where the character needs to rethink either his telos, or the virtues he is employing, or both?

5. Summarize the plot in no more than three sentences, focusing on the major events and the key actions by the main character. Then state a “rule of life” based on that plot. If the story is true to life, then what rule about the way things work is illustrated by it?


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Change! Damn it!
     The totalitarian urge

“What we’re saying here is, if you can’t decide to change these practices, we’re not going to use precious dollars that we want to see creating better results; we’re not going to send those dollars there,” Obama said in an Oval Office interview Wednesday. “And we’re counting on the fact that, ultimately, this is an incentive, this is a challenge for people who do want to change.” Obama, quoted in Washington Post

Obama is up against freedom, but he’s committed to change, so the sticks and carrots come out.

He wants to link student data to teacher evaluation. This does, indeed, put pressure on teachers to get students to change. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give teachers the sort of power to command the change that Obama wants. After all, students will still be free to stay up playing digital games till 4 in the morning, then come to school sleepy, without their homework. They will still be free to cut class and go hang out at the mall. They will still be free to buy term papers on the Internet and text themselves crib sheets for the quizzes.

And parents will still be free, too. They will still be able to lodge complaints against teachers who give low grades. They will still be free to move students from school to school every few weeks as they look for new jobs or new boyfriends. They will still be free to call in bogus excuses for kids who miss school thirty or forty percent of the time.

Since teachers can’t change any of those things--they can’t even decide, in many cases, what materials to use or even whether materials are available, they are naturally resistant to being evaluated based on what students decide to do. Doctors wouldn’t want to be evaluated on the basis of how healthy patients are, since they can only tell patients to quit smoking and to exercise more, but they can’t make anyone actually do it. They can’t even make patients take the medicine that’s prescribed. Obama’s in the same boat. How would he like it if we fired him because the Blue Dog Democrats won’t do what he asked them to do?

Nonetheless, Obama wants power to get educators fired if kids don’t change. As he will find out, to make a real difference he’s going to need to focus more on the people whose behavior is the actual problem: parents and students.

Why work through teachers at all? Why not go for the real power to change?

He could send the school money directly to the parents in the form of vouchers, threatening to cut it off if the kids grades don’t improve. He could turn off cell phone service for kids whose GPA drops below C. He could give each honor student one of those unsold General Motors cars while revoking drivers licenses for any student who gets an F.

There are no limits to changes that could be made.

People have got in the habit of thinking they are free to run their own lives, but since most of them are now on the federal dole in one way or another, it’s time for that to stop. We need to get accustomed to new ways of doing things. It’s time, for example, that people with diabetes reported for morning calisthenics to bring those blood glucose levels down, to do their part to reduce the cost of health care. It’s time for parents whose students miss a lot of school to have their benefits reduced. It’s time for students who are falling behind to have their Iphones jammed and their Ipods erased.

Change, damn it!


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Holding teachers accountable
     The myth and the madness of NCLB

No Child Left Behind is a massive invitation to scapegoating. By setting unserious goals that cannot be met, it manufactures a steady stream of bad news headlines. Of course, this is manna for the noisy poseurs who afflict our political discourse, holding forth as though they were leaders, assigning blame for all that’s gone wrong with the country--after all, bad news is the lifeblood of those who want attention, a name, a little power.

Universities, think tanks, foundations, unions and journalists daily offer their diagnoses or their prescriptions to save us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into the maelstrom. America daily tells itself a thousand stories about how badly our schools are failing, and most of these stories now include the words “standards” and “accountability,” both of which suggest that teachers have failed us.

That’s a comforting thought, in many ways. Believing it gets everyone else off the hook, psychologically.

It saves us from needing examine our relationship with an economy that has no use for millions of people. We can simply say that those millions need to be better educated and then all will be well. The young man with an IQ of seventy simply needs to get a bachelor’s degree and become a knowledge worker adept at 21st Century Skills. If teachers fail to do that, we need to strengthen accountability.

It saves us from an uncomfortable lingering over the avalanche of data showing that children do best in homes where both natural parents are present. We can remain children ourselves, indulging our fantasies and our whims, worrying about whether we are personally fulfilled enough, getting and spending and chasing our bliss. As long as the kids get 21st Century Skills, they will be fine. Teachers need to get up to speed.

It saves us from clarifying what we believe enough to stand for it unambiguously. We can leave the kids’ moral instruction to television and video games and pop culture, collecting snippets of research from NPR that bolster our hope that just the way we are turns out to be just right. We need to keep repeating that condoms make sex safe. Diversity means each of us is okay. Tolerance means nobody can judge me. The important thing is to respect copyright.

All students can learn. All students can succeed. If there are problems, the teachers have failed. We need standards. We need accountability. By 2014, 100% of our children must be proficient in reading and math. The bad news comes in the form of numbers, which give a comforting illusion of control.

Unfortunately, some some critics say 2014 is too soon. More reasonable people, though, see that 100% of people are not going to meet a rigorous standard ever. They also see that the standards are unscientific and unreasonable. Congress has not been able to find credible support for the way it reports proficiency.

Repeatedly the agencies that have been commissioned to evaluate how the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) sets proficiency levels have denounced the process. Although the feds don’t define proficiency in NCLB--leaving that to the states--increasingly state scores are judged against the NAEP, which is taken as the most reliable standard. The first evaluation of the NAEP, done in 1991, called the process for determining proficiency “ridiculous.” Congress then turned to the General Accounting Office, which reported that the approach was “inherently flawed.” So the U.S. Department of Education sought input from the National Academy of Education, which found that the proficiency definitions were “unreasonably high.” Finally, the Education Department asked the National Academy of Sciences to examine the matter. It found that the process was “fundamentally flawed” and that the results “do not appear to be reasonable.”

Those were not the answers Congress wanted so they were ignored, except for the Congressionally-mandated small print that appears in annual NAEP reports warning that conclusions about how many students are actually proficient may not be warranted. At the same time, the large print in press releases highlights those unwarranted conclusions. One benefit of having power is that sanity is optional.

Though it’s true that American students do more poorly in some international measures than students from other countries, my point at the moment is that the children from no country even come close to the standards set by NCLB. In 2001, Sweden topped an international reading test, but two-thirds of Swedish students were not proficient readers as defined by the NAEP. Taiwan topped an international math exam, though 60 percent would have scored below proficient as defined by NAEP. To meet the standard, people with IQs as low as 65 would need to be proficient.

Also, students who are absent 25% of the time need to be proficient. Students who are strung out on drugs need to be proficient. Students who refuse to take the test need to be proficient. Students who are being raped by step-fathers need to be proficient. Students whose mothers change their schools seven times a year as they move from boyfriend to boyfriend need to be proficient. For now, the plan is to hold teachers accountable.

From the start, experts understood that expecting all students to achieve proficiency “defies reality.” Nevertheless, the sanctions schools face are real enough. The power that is being concentrated in Washington really is diminishing the power of states, and of school boards, and of teachers, and of parents. At the moment, schools are the main targets, but the talk is shifting more and more to teachers. Merit pay linked to test scores--that sort of thing.

When that too fails, as it must, parents and students will come into focus as targets themselves.The idea has been established that the central government can set behavioral goals for citizens and then establish data collection systems to track progress. The current debate about what, exactly, those goals should be is a little like a debate about whether we should smoke cigarettes or pipes--the right choice is somewhere behind us.

But there’s no going back.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Which stories? (24 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

As we contemplate stories, both in books and in living, we increase their prominence in our personal narrative environment. It’s helpful to have some general principles in mind, just as we rethink our diet in the light of principles of nutrition that we learn. We might note, for example, that stories that only evoke fear are not as important as those that also teach understanding. We might consider that stories that only clarify principles are not as good as those that somehow manage to kindle or encourage a love of rightness.

I think that a story that leads me to delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself; and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family. Further, I’m confident that a story that leads me to feel empathy for all of humanity is better than one that tempts me to expect outsiders to be enemies. A story that instills a reverent sense of co-creation with all of life may be about as good as stories get.

Though details may vary and shift as we see more, we can nonetheless discern a hierarchy of stories based on the vision of reality that they encode, with better stories helping us glimpse larger realities, preparing the mental structures we need to inhabit such stories.

This doesn’t mean that I think such a hierarchy can be defined or promoted in any useful way by any coercive bureaucracy. Beyond the level of law, we can only invite, entice, persuade and perhaps seduce. Besides, literature is more subtle than organizational policies, and a powerful vision of evil sometimes teaches much about why goodness works as it does. A principal (and Jesuit priest) at a Catholic high school where I once taught forbade the teaching of Once and Future King--T. H. White’s telling of the Camelot story--because the novel’s central action was the adultery between Lancelot and Guenever. It occurred to me that adultery is also a central theme in the King David story from the Bible, and that the more important issue might be whether the story tells the truth or not. The infidelity in the Camelot story leads to the fall of the kingdom and the suffering of all the main characters. But since I had not been asked for my opinion I didn’t offer one. My point is that I have no interest in any “authorities” imposing a hierarchy of better or worse books, though I do think we, as free people, need to be discussing always which books are better and why. Socrates argued that the good life is the life spent asking the question, “what is the good life?” Thinking one has arrived at the final answer is a way turning away from the question, a way of failing. So it is, I think, with the question, “what are the good books?” It’s death not to ask the question, but it is also death to think it has been finally answered.

We need to recognize that some stories are more useful than others, and we need to keep the discussion about good and better alive. We cannot give the authorities the power to settle the matter. The power to compel belongs to lower orders.

But our problem today isn’t authorities imposing reading lists. Instead, the difficulty of answering such a question has led many of us to make the mistake of thinking that we can turn away from it. The current trend is away from such questions, so teaching literature devolves to teaching reading, and the question of what to read is answered by noting what kids seem to like. This serves the need of children to develop powerful moral imaginations no better than planning meals based on children’s preferences serves their need to for nutritional diversity and balance.

Having a vision about what a good life might be and what a good society is like is an adult responsibility. Having such a vision, we have a sense of what stories young people will benefit from experiencing. When it comes to educating children, no question is more important than how we will constitute their narrative environment, what stories we will consciously live and tell.

To some extent the moral sense–the feeling that some things are right and some are wrong–is innate, but the moral imagination that shapes the cognitive and emotional landscape of our fears and desires does so by constructing coherent wholes from the patterns of intention, action and consequence that we learn from the stories we inhabit--those we hear, but also those we experience and those we learn to tell.

Our narrative environment includes the curricular stories of history, science and literature, of course, but it also includes the informal storytelling that goes on without pause in the hallways and lounges. It includes the carefully structured narratives of the football team’s movement through a series of planned contests toward the resolution of the seasonal script. It includes the way the principal deals with a recalcitrant student and the way the school board responds to a parent’s challenge over a book.

The better schools are those that manage to pull all these levels and genres of narrative into more coherent wholes. Such schools are orders that waste less energy than failing schools at enacting competing tales, trying to will contradictions. To a large extent, then, school reform requires many acts of literary criticism in which participants increase their narrative intelligence.

Just as we get more intelligent as individuals by recognizing when we are working against ourselves, learning bit by bit that we can only make our lives coherent by devoting ourselves to higher purposes–in the way that being healthy is a higher purpose than tasting candy–and by editing the profusion of whims and desires–"goods," the utilitarians call them–that threaten to dissolve us, so schools get better by trying to make the story of their desire and their action coherent. Kierkegaard argued that “the good” is our name for that which we can will without contradiction. “Purity of heart,” he said, “is to will one thing.”

So it is with schools and other organizations. As they get better, their purposes become more harmonious. They become more beautiful–more sustainable and more healthy–at the same time they become more free. They are lively with stories that bind us together in common cause, in contemplation and discussion about what works and what does not work. They are animated by high purpose, and they are rich in chances to speak and to listen.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within that is in harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

Still, there are lots of troubles, and it is not clear that much of the world is getting better. The world has never been an easy place for working toward peace. When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. Nevertheless, no matter how urgent things appear around us, we can’t evade the responsibility to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the very contention and conflict we hope to resolve.

I understand that Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and others find support for the work of peace through a kindred faith that larger powers are operative in the world, and that our efforts, insufficient on their own, are part of a bigger story.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Narrative identities (23 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of an order that existed before them. To teach them peace, we surround them to the extent that we can with the peace that we’ve made, showing them how it works and what its rules are and why they should care for it.

As young people proceed through adolescence, the stories they hear around them become increasingly internalized, forming the basis of their own sense of who they are. The work of being an adolescent is fundamentally the work of digesting and interpreting experiences and putting together out of diverse influences a personal life story that’s more or less coherent.

Teenagers are in the process of becoming a story they tell themselves about who they are.

Our identity is inseparable from our life story. According to psychologist Dan McAdams, adolescents are at a stage of development where they begin adopting an autobiographical perspective on life, understanding in ways that younger children do not that their beliefs and character traits are formed by the experiences they have. They are learning that we “author” the moral stances that define us by the way we respond to the narrative flow of our experience.

It’s not a story they learn to tell by themselves, though. It’s a story they learn in dialogue with others. Adolescents are surrounded by perspectives–or voices–that influence them. Often, the voices of friends and parents are important, but as Robert Coles showed, voices found in literature can also be profoundly helpful. One needn’t be overly perceptive watching young movie-goers adopt the swagger, catch phrases, and fashion sense of a Hollywood star to see that their sense of possible identities is also shaped by movies and other modern media. Vygotsky argued that we develop into mature thinkers by incorporating voices from the society around us into our own psychology. He suggested that this is why adults experience thought as a conversation between “inner voices.”

In a very real sense, we become who we are by internalizing patterns we see in our narrative environment. This is why the narrative environment that surrounds young people is of supreme educational importance.

Adults, and not just teachers, have a responsibility to ensure that young people grow up in communities where civilizing values are given clear, certain, and powerful voice. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative environment of teenagers includes audiences that expect to tell stories that are well-crafted, integrating facts, values, and differing perspectives into coherent wholes.

Developing the capacity to tell such stories is much of the way young people grow from the diffuse and unsettled identity of late childhood into the integrated and coherent identity of successful young adulthood.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Two ways, one road (22 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The peacemaker learns to recognize two fundamentally different way: one leads toward greater life--which is greater connection and greater order--and the other leads toward greater disorder--which involves separation, a kind of death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can progress toward one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate–it’s easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down toward lower realities which require less conscious effort to sustain, but will tend to do so without daily work to avoid it. Maintaining complex human realities requires intentional effort. They must be willed.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher tend to be easy to govern, though difficult to enslave. Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. They understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity.

A peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption.

Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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