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."

Peace in a world of oppositions (21 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The hardest part of the reality of living in peace is that we need to avoid the pattern of reading conscious evil intent into the actions not just of friends but also of opponents. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

But we can never be sure. We do not know what other people are thinking.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it sometimes is, then our thoughts naturally turn to strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us. If we want other things more than we want peace, we will find it very slippery.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace, and this is what he said about the matter: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy that is imaginable. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a smaller and shabbier reality, one that will not endure. The true realist, seeing the largest reality, knows that often nothing else will work.

Taking this advice sometimes deprives us of the great pleasure of seeing those who do us wrong get their own, and people who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well suffer as we live by such a policy.

The paradigmatic relationship in the highest reality is that between teacher and learner. All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations and role reversals, taking our turns at both roles. When people act badly, the teacher begins by assuming the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we decide to believe that a person acting badly doesn’t understand what he is doing, or doesn’t know a better way. Sometimes, a person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed. Sometimes he needs to be rescued, even if he is inflicting harm upon us.

If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so the teacher teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the best way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by confronting what they have done and by punishment.

But punishment is not the same as revenge, and neither is it the same as therapy. Punishment seeks to educate more than it seeks to settle scores or to cure. And punishment, as every good parent understands, can be delivered in a spirit of love.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

A separate peace (20 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The sort of learning that often leads to a commitment to genuine peace is illustrated in A Separate Peace, a text that was popular in high school classrooms for many years. It’s a good, teachable novel, and part of what works about it in high school classrooms is that adolescents are in the stage of life where the reality of friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence.

The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–other people in general–exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. The images we have of other people are based partly on inferences we make, and sometimes our inferences are wrong.

In the course of the story, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas. The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

This isn’t Gene’s first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he were certain it was true. When he learns that however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior it was still only a theory and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene comes to see that he told himself a lie about another person, then believed his lie, and that this dishonesty, his accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence, caused the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. We see this most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

A third reality (19 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

It is both our plight and our majesty that no one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them. And only by seeing them can we freely choose them. Our plight is that we cannot simply engineer the sort of world we want to live in, and our majesty is that we are irreducibly free. At some level, others need to get our understanding and our assent to do much with us. They need to teach.

A few small societies such as families and religious communities have experienced the highest level: the reality of peace. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, because the members need to freely choose it. They need to be drawn toward it by love.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. The truth is that all of us have something to fear from justice. All of us have done things we don’t want examined in a court room by zealous questioners. We know we need forgiveness, so although law remains, mercy grows out of it and tempers it.

Since we live in part by trespassing and being trespassed, and since being wronged is the human condition, those who walk the road to peace find at every fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find the road turns back and descends easily and steadily. So returning to the way becomes the daily work.

Societies of peace rely on the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. An economy of peace is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains, but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants, promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What one can give is often more important than what one might get.

Many of us reach a commitment to living peacefully after trying other methods. People who are most committed to peace usually have their scars. They are not naive about the challenges life throws in our way. Sometimes they are accused of being too idealistic.

But in seeing the highest reality, they may be understood as the true realists.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

We are stronger, wiser for having read James Welch
     Re-reading "Fools Crow"

Through the summer I have been re-reading James Welch’s books, because there were things there I wanted to feel again and think about some more. I wanted to continue being taught by this gifted writer. We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the practical and spiritual realities of belonging. Of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.

Montana is at a critical juncture, and we have all sorts of important decisions to make that will have ramifications long into the future. At such times, nothing is more useful than the right stories, because the right stories educate our desires. Our best writers teach us what we need to consider to live well, and James Welch stands among our best writers.

At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.

The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.

Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow’s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look small and insignificant in the blue snowfield. As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his people--its rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. “The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth.”

The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family’s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions.

We see that Fast Horse’s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.

The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky.

Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decides--not once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisis--to face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.

Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.

Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more. But again, it is enough.

Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter one’s lodge at night lies another realm--which we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand things are as they should be.

I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The stories that really matter
     Percy Wollaston's "Homesteading: A Montana family album"

At one point during a conversation I had with an eighth-grader over the summer, she cited from memory Sam’s words at the conclusion of the movie The Two Towers. I quote the words at some length because Sarah quoted them at some length. The fact that she had cared enough to get those words into her head and to hang onto them is important:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. . .Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. . .There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Sam says these words as he and Frodo proceed onward at great effort and despite great peril. As any teacher would, I thrilled a bit at Sarah’s demonstration that young people are still idealistic and still respond to stories more wholesome than hip-hop and more troubling than Harry Potter.

This is important because we live, like Sam and Frodo, by being caught up in the stories that are loose in the world. Since some of them are not very good, hampering rather than bolstering our efforts, we need to be literary critics of a sort to find our way. When we get caught in the wrong stories, our efforts are vexed and our dreams turn vain.

Thinking along such lines, I was troubled when I heard several people at an education conference succumbing to pessimism about Montana’s future. A teacher said our small towns were dying. A historian lamented the bleakness of the places she passed. And a writer suggested that those who could get out had gotten out and that those who remained were isolated in despair and distrust.

That’s not the Montana I experience. It’s true enough that judging our towns by the standards of, say, a strip mall, can make them seem somewhat incomplete. But it seems just as likely that any people that builds more than a half mile of strip mall may not have a very compelling vision of what the world is for or what is worth doing or wanting.

When I think of Montana places I think mostly of families and landscapes and the way the two interact here. Having truly seen the moon rise over the Snowy Mountains or the sun set over the Missouri Breaks or the storm clouds pile up over the Sweetgrass Hills, one is unlikely to be unduly dazzled by the marquee on Times Square. And having eaten fresh-caught trout with one’s children on the rocky shores of Mollman Lakes, one would have to be ungrateful to hanker after a gourmet meal prepared for profit.

This is not to minimize the economic difficulties some of us are facing. It is only to remember that the surest way out of a bad story is into another story and that there are always other stories. The way the same set of facts and events can be woven into different stories is illustrated by Percy Wollaston’s memoir, Homesteading, set in Montana during the homestead boom that got into high gear around 1910. The memoir tells one story while the introduction by Seattle writer Jonathan Raban tells a different one.

Raban places Wollaston’s work amid the preoccupations of many mainstream historians. In doing so, he finds Homesteading “a story of a colossal failure” (xvi). He sees Montana’s homesteaders as the victims of a dastardly fraud perpetrated by the forces of darkness--corporate marketers. Though he admires the courage and endurance of the Montanans, his big story is the way they were tricked into catastrophe. His introduction is a brief version of the script that won him the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996 for Bad Land, An American Romance.

But that’s not the story Percy Wollaston wanted to tell or did tell. To be sure, he is an astute and thoughtful man, aware of the issues that capture Raban’s passions. He noted, for example, that the 1912 sinking of the Titanic “marked some sort of turning point in the attitude of people all over the country” (56-57). He observed that “trusted and supposedly competent authority” didn’t make good decisions. “The great and the humble, the dolt and the wise, all seem to have been living in some sort of play world where everything would turn out for the best” (58), he said.

Wollaston wasn’t living in a play world. He didn’t fancy himself an important man whose voice would change the big things, so he was not very interested in railing against the chicaneries perpetrated by the big players, though such chicaneries may be as real as Raban tells them.

Success in the world Wollaston cares about is measured by the sort of character one becomes. Adversity, including failure, is often the occasion for developing and displaying that character. When Jim Morrow lost his cow just before his first blizzard on the prairie, he tracked her till darkness then led her home, where he tied her to the foot of his bed before stoking up the fire and falling into an exhausted sleep. Wollaston noted that the storm “changed Jim from a boy to a man who ever afterward faced poverty, hardship, or any other adversity with a calm optimism” (115).

Wollaston’s story is mainly about calmness and optimism, about people coming together and finding a way. In the Montana he describes, newcomers are welcomed and scrutinized for talents that might enhance life. People sacrifice to organize a school, buying windows, digging wells, and hiring teachers. They form a community club to discuss their problems and share their solutions. When they go to town, they leave their houses unlocked, so traveling strangers can stop and fix themselves a meal.

Such stories may be more useful for kids today than yet more tales of corporate malfeasance. Many of our youth are already as distrustful of large corporations as they are cynical about official pronouncements. But they are hungry for stories that reveal the sources of goodness in the world.

The society the homesteaders built turned out not to be sustainable--though, for that matter, neither was Rome--but it was a society that had its goodnesses. The building of that society--as well as what became of it--is a story worth carrying around in our heads.

Wollaston offers quiet wisdom, noting that people today suffer from “some lack of looking forward” (112). The homesteaders did not build a good society by focusing on what was wrong with the world. “The next meal might be potatoes and water gravy but you didn’t hear anything about hardship unless somebody burned out or broke a leg” (112).

Though their prospects were surely not brighter than our own, those hardy pioneers could build a good society because they stayed committed to a better future. “There were people from almost every walk of life and status of education, but they learned little of each other beyond what each planned to make of his place and plans for the future of the community” (112).

Though the closing pages of Raban’s book are taken up with an ironic meditation on the meaning of the Unabomber--another writer passing through Montana preoccupied with our betrayal by the world’s princes--on the penultimate page of Percy’s story we are offered more hopeful fare: he told of the time he heard Jim Morrow’s father upstairs alone, dancing a jig to music from a phonograph, “just serene and happy to be at home” (129).

In the story Raban emphasizes, we may learn such things as the importance of truth in advertising laws and such--useful, and important in a way. But one gets the feeling that he wants us to be angry. The story Wollaston tells is quite different. We learn how some of our fellows dealt with trouble, including injury, sickness, economic misfortune, bad weather, and death--troubles to which we are not strangers. Wollaston’s theme is human character as it emerged amid the whips and scorns of a particular place and time, and one gets the feeling that he wants us to be wise and strong.

At one point, Jim Morrow dug two dry holes by hand, trying to build a well. On his third try he ran into bedrock at about twelve feet. Things seemed hopeless. He prayed, and then he chiseled and hammered through about a foot of sandstone. Below it, he found good water.

A useful story, that.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Decline of the rule of law 18/24
     The way of the judge

The main weakness of a republic of law is that it cannot deliver results better than the people who operate it. If those people will tolerate slavery, so will such a government. In spite of its marvelous achievements, America’s government is now deeply threatened by the distrust and hatred built up through centuries of unjust policies and practices. At this point, no one can be certain that the American government will survive slavery, its worst violation of its espoused principles. The story of race in America is far from over.

Another weakness is that rule of law is easily corrupted into rule by law. Many people now urge patterns of thought that threaten our by law. Among these are the deconstructionists, who, hoping to improve the lot of the downtrodden have sought to delegitimize established institutions. They teach that the world is nothing but power and its theatrical effects, and that no law is more than a disguised power stratagem, designed to bolster some privileged group’s power. It follows that those who are in authority pursue strategies of self-preservation that the governed experience as oppression, and it becomes an act of liberation to attack authority and to disbelieve whatever those who govern might say.

Some of them seem to think that as they dissolve the authority of existing institutions the oppressed and powerless will miraculously become more free and powerful. But others understand quite well that when a government of law collapses, power does not descend on the oppressed. It is grabbed by someone else. In most places, criminals are best organized to take advantage of power vacuums. Though the deconstructionists have been met and challenged on the intellectual front and their power may be waning in academia, their ideology continues to spread through the popular culture.

Under the banner of “multiculturalism” we are developing habits of governance that we should consider carefully. First, it has become popular to require leaders to make no decisions until politically influential groups have been involved, so we create advisory groups or “blue ribbon” panels, usually made up of influential activists who, it is claimed, provide “input” for various groups. These people generally represent interests that will be affected by the proposed government action, and appointments are often given to those who can apply pressure if they don’t get their way. Thus we create a shadow government of unelected functionaries, ignoring the consent of the governed in the name of extending democracy.

Second, as we try to adjust representation to reflect the race, culture, gender and religion of the represented, we set up conflicts between groups. Since anyone can invent categories, the quest for representation so conceived is hopeless. We can conceptualize society as being comprised of any number of groups, so the argument that we can create governing bodies that perfectly mirror the composition of society is naive when it is honest. The same woman can be classified as a lesbian, a Latina, a Buddhist, a soccer mom, or an infinite number of other labels.

Rule of law interferes with the government’s ability to confer benefits on favored groups, so advocates of multiculturalism often dislike the rule of law. They favor what they call “responsive government,” which judges cases taking into account the race of the people involved. Rather than defining the principles that all will abide by, the constraints that none will escape–which is the essence of the rule of law–we place a premium upon membership in groups that are organized to create pressure.

The way to change government is less and less to present arguments and evidence based on principles and more and more to organize to exert influence. This is a movement away from reason toward force. It matters less and less what is just. It matters more and more who we know. We encourage angry, contesting factions.

In the many attempts to fashion policy not by honest argument but by political force, elected government tends to vanish, becoming a mechanism driven by organized mass movements. Most of us have long since become too cynical to be surprised that C-Span coverage of Congress does not feature the intense debates of past ages. The only Senators we see are there to make speeches to the cameras. The rest are off making deals with lobbyists organized to move money and votes.

Much of our current political and cultural turmoil has arisen as a natural consequence of turning the minds of people away from enduring principles and toward getting all that’s possible for one’s group. As we turn away from rule of law and toward identity politics, we find less and less about which we agree. As we lose our belief in higher realities about which we can, through reason, move toward agreement, we find that our legislatures and courts become increasingly unlikely to provide answers that satisfy more people than they offend.

More and more, government comes to be understood primarily as force, and we feel that we are slipping from law toward fear.

Law, we see, tends always to become corrupted, to become an instrument of oppression. To resist the constant downward pull of our lower nature, we need constantly to refresh ourselves at the sources of our highest ideals. We need an education that helps us see past the cronyism, past the power grabs, past the rough and cynical conduct that is always there.

We need to remember that although up close history is always horrific, we have nevertheless made progress century by century toward a world in which people’s lives tend to be less brutal, nasty and short, and we have done this because in all times and places we have had teachers who talked about a different reality.

Because there are other realities, and our best teachers have showed us how to find them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

A balance between oppression and chaos 17/24
     The way of the judge

In 1786 Madison went home to Montpelier to prepare for the writing of a new constitution. He studied every experiment in republican and federal government that he could find. The problems with tyranny were obvious, and to this he added the problems with democracy. One of the “regular faults” he found was that both ancient and modern governments that didn’t have strong central authority were torn apart by jealousies and rivalries among members.

The lesson of the past was always the same: among free people, lack of an authoritative center led to jealousies, dissensions, and disorders among the members. This didn’t lead him to forget his passionate belief, over which he joined a war, that strong governments tended to be actively destructive of liberty. He knew that the key was balance: both freedom and constraint were needed.

He understood that if the parts weren’t free to respond to what they found because they were too constrained by the center, the system would lose contact with reality and crash. But if the parts were too free of central control, the system wouldn’t be able to act as a whole. When it met a crisis, its parts would act without coordination, or they would engage in endless communication, not responding at all, unable to use their resources to respond intelligently. And the system would crash.

Peace could be just as readily destroyed by internal quarreling as by the tyranny of an unjust leader.

The government that Madison and his colleagues built, a republic of laws balanced between the tyranny that results when a small group makes the laws for their own purposes and the chaos that results when law is overwhelmed by the tempests of public opinion, was, as Lincoln told a later generation, “the last, best hope of the earth.” From Lincoln’s position in time he could see that the future of western civilization was taking shape in the great nations of Germany, Russia and America. Otto von Bismarck was destroying the rule of law in Germany and Alexander II was autocratically trying to guide Russia between a feudal past and a brutal revolutionary future.

Lincoln saw in America humanity’s best chance to preserve the rule of law from the constant tendency of civic governments to disintegrate into bickering factions or, through a series of emergencies, to degenerate into slave empires.

These are still the dangers we face. America is still our best hope.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Establishing the rule of law 16/24
     The way of the judge

The dominant story in English political history is of that nation’s gradual development from a feudal society into a society ordered according to law. A key moment occurred when parliament executed a king for ignoring the law.

Much was learned along the way in this, one of the great stories in history, of how political hierarchies could be formed that protected the dignity of individuals while meeting the community’s need for the order and stability. From Montesquieu, we took the idea of separation of powers, and from Hobbes the confidence to replace the authority of divine right with the authority of the governed to give their consent. Though it has been downplayed by moderns, the Bible was also powerfully influential on people trying to understand the central question of the Arthurian legend: how can force be subordinated to rightness?

The governments that resulted were far from perfect, of course, and coercion and force remained, just as oxygen and hydrogen remain in water, but a system of law grew out of them that made it increasingly possible for power to be transferred without assassination, for wrongs to be redressed taking into account developing ideas about justice instead of mere strength, and the stability that resulted made life less terrifying. This system developed slowly, and often at great cost, over centuries. Concepts such legal constraints against government search and seizure were not thought up by philosophers concerned with abstract notions of right so much as they were figured out in bloody struggle.

One of the clearest expositions of what is possible in the realm of law is the American Constitution. It is the oldest national constitution on the planet. Others have come and gone, but, so far, it has endured, though it has been corrupted in dramatic ways. It is durable because it is founded on basic insights into the ecology of human systems. Drawing on centuries of accumulated wisdom from Athens, London, Rome, and Jerusalem, the American revolutionaries invented far less often than they codified the learning their predecessors had won by hard experience.

Among the brightest of many bright stars in that generation was James Madison. Madison’s role as “father” of the Constitution is less dramatic than Washington’s military leadership or Jefferson’s vivid rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence. His ill health and weak voice didn’t make him a formidable soldier or a dynamic orator, but he had other gifts. His reason and intelligence prevailed over many flashier opponents. He was a tremendous systems thinker, more coherent than Jefferson and more serene than Adams.

At college he was ravenous for learning. He slept only five or so hours a night, giving himself to the study of human nature through Greek and Latin authors, and his letters are full of easy references to Fielding, Hume, Butler, Swift, Pope, and, most important, Locke. But he also had direct experience in the bare-knuckle politics of his time. He had grown up in a Virginia dominated by the Church of England, and he had seen how quick the pious were to persecute those who believed differently.

His first involvement with politics was triggered when a Baptist elder was imprisoned for praying in a private home, and Baptist ministers were arrested for preaching without a license. Such acts of state authority infuriated him. He was elected to the Virginia Convention in 1776, only twenty-five years old, and he committed his energies to overcoming a powerful central government that abused people’s rights.

Like most who helped with the Constitution, his wisdom was earned in the heat of real conflict. During 1780, as the British won victory after victory, quarrels, defeat, and treason provided daily challenges for Congress. When the British captured Charleston, making an invasion of the Carolinas likely, the colonies faced an emergency. The man Washington chose to command the southern army was accused of profiteering, so another man was appointed.

Politics overcame military judgment, but then the appointee was immediately defeated in battle and the southern army routed. Chaos and defeat closed in on the colonists, and many of them thought the only hope was help from the French. But even in this there was discord. Many distrusted France and thought that only trouble would come from an alliance.

Hostilities flared when an American delegate to France was accused of trying to get money for goods that had been a free gift from France. Powerful men such as John Adams supported the delegate and equally powerful men opposed him. Madison chaired the committee that met to decide his fate.

Eventually, the war was won and a new government was established under the Articles of Confederation. The revolutionaries’ fear of control by a new central government kept the federal government weak. In the heat of a Philadelphia summer, soldiers demonstrating to get back pay taunted the fledgling congress. When the men began drinking whiskey and making threats, the delegates asked state authorities to provide protection but received no guarantees. The U. S. Congress fled to Princeton in fear of the mob.

By 1783, Madison had learned that a strong central government wasn’t the only way to fail. He saw that the new national government had too little authority to survive. It couldn’t even defend itself from surly mobs.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The way of the judge 15/24
     A second reality

“Judging” is one of those words, like “hierarchy” and “authority,” that makes many moderns uncomfortable. Though this is a topic on which Jesus is still quoted, such quoting is often done in an ironic mode, which is the only mode in which “judge not, that you be not judged” can be spoken as a rebuke.

Interestingly, people who are quite bothered by other people’s judgment seem not to have pondered what Jesus meant when he himself made judgment the theme of a rebuke: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye. . .have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith. . . .”

A person who has been badly wronged will understand his point immediately. Without judgment there can be no justice. A person who has suffered injustice wants nothing so much as an honest person willing to hear his story and to judge, to do the right thing. Postmodernists established distrust of judging as a cultural norm among liberals because judgment ties them to cultural norms not of their own choosing and so they fear it as an infringement of their radical sense of freedom. But they still expect justice from government, just as, I think, they still want their friends to tell them the truth though, in a philosophical sense, they question whether the concept of truth makes much sense. In any case, most people understand that establishing justice is the fundamental task of government.

By the time of the American Revolution, such works as Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) had made rule of law into the preeminent legitimating ideal for liberals to follow in their attempts to establish and preserve justice. It’s important to understand that the rule of law is not the same thing as rule by law. In fact, rule by law is often the mechanism by which rule of law is undone, as is presently ocurring in America. Under rule of law, law is superior to the rulers and may serve as a check against abuse, while under rule by law, law is merely a tool that may be used by government to suppress whom it pleases through legalistic maneuvers.

Rule of law is nothing other than rule of principle, while rule by law has been used by every unprincipled boss man since time began, using government force to impose his will on others. Constant legislation in response to pleas from businesses seeking protection from competitors or a guaranteed cash flow supported by government policy is a far cry from identifying good principles by which all will be governed and then implementing laws in accord with them.

James Madison and the other founders understood this. Their hope was that it might be possible to establish a constitution made legitimate by the consent of those to be governed, and that such a constitution could establish basic laws that legislators and executives did not have the authority to change. Then, perhaps even a democratic government could be constrained by law, avoiding the tempestuous failures of historical democracies, where lawmakers made rules that favored some groups, leading to contests between groups, until one or another got permanent control and established a tyranny.

Maybe if law could be established based on principles that all groups accepted, the endless cycles of various parties getting control of governments to further their own interests could be broken.

That was the ideal. It was never fully realized, but what was realized was a nation stable and free enough to unleash wealth producing energies that surpassed anything the world had seen. Even when perfect justice is not attained, stable laws are preferable to the whimsical chaos that results when rulers just make things up as they go. People can figure out what works and what doesn’t work if the laws are stable and consistently enforced.

Merchants thrive at the level of law. They know that as long as a system is predictable, people can figure out how to accomplish work that furthers their interests. Merchants also figured out centuries ago that their own self-interest is not harmed and may be enhanced by someone else’s doing well. Enemies are costly but partners are valuable. Merchants excel at arranging things so that both they and those they do business with come out ahead. They see the benefits of cooperation, and, through negotiation, they create larger and more stable systems than are likely through force. Force is costly and inefficient.

Although unregulated markets tend to self-destruct due to the cumulative costs of unscrupulous behavior, markets established by laws that sustain moral behavior provide a vast array of benefits. People devise contracts that render the future less uncertain. They take advantage of opportunities to increase their might, their wealth and their influence.

Negotiation becomes a central cultural activity, and people construct a reality wherein the virtues of intelligence, rationality, flexibility, cooperation and industry are valued.

The more that justice is established–though laws applied equally to everyone, courts organized around discovering the truth amid claim and counter-claim, and rules of transparency that guard against courts from becoming corrupt–the more fear recedes.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Free chapter: The Power of Community-Centered Education
     Eight Practices of Community-Centered Teachers

Download a free chapter. (Chapter 8: Eight Practices of Community-Centered Teachers)

Order the book: The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.


“Umphrey’s book is part philosophical speculation, part sociological inquiry, part how-to guide for interested educators. Its depth and intellectual substance propel a reader through its pages, looking for more fresh insights and examples of positive educational practice. His message...fills an important gap in contemporary discussions about what Americans should seek from public schools. What is being lost in our preoccupation with accountability and assessment are more fundamental elements of what it means to be a good human being and those elements are all tied into relationships with those around us and the places that support our lives. Gregory Smith, professor, Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Lewis & Clark

“I am so impressed with this wonderful book about teaching and place...It has been observed that 90% of our knowledge is folklore (learned by experience) and this is the knowledge that we will pass on to the next generation. Unfortunately our educational curricula, testing requirements, and bureaucratic busywork have kept teachers and students in a knowledge-restricting straight-jacket. The Power of Community-Centered Education gives us a blueprint for breaking out of these constraints to give teachers and students a way back to real experience-based community-centered learning. Peggy A. Bulger, director, American Folklife Center, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Power of Community-Centered Education is a passionate and personal testimonial based on real experiences in education...[Umphrey] brings his profound insights on education and community together in a treatise that outlines how to create a successful model for 21st century education. This book should be a “must” for all adults who are educating children and young adults...Umphrey’s experiences as the director of the Montana Heritage Project for the past ten years have resulted in a unique and important view of the way that we learn, and the way that we construct our lives from this learning.” Paddy B. Bowman, coordinator, National Network for Folk Arts in Education, Alexandria, VA

Publisher’s blurb:

We face an epidemic of disengagement in American high schools as our institutions fail to offer meaningful and relevant ways to connect curriculum with students’ emerging life stories. These students do not see how schooling, as it is presently constituted, is important to their own developing identities. One solution to this problem is to organize the curriculum around the concept of community and to link the study of abstract concepts and principles to their manifestations in the places that students know and care about (local history, shared traditions, civic pride, etc.).

The Power of Community-Centered Education provides psychological, sociological, historical, and philosophical insights into why community works so well as an organizing principle for high school. The book concludes with a call to action for all agencies and institutions that have public outreach programs to consider how they assist in building “education-centered communities” that support the work of high schools by offering research opportunities and scaffolding to secondary education.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
(0) CommentsPermalinkPrinter-FriendlyE-mail this page
2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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