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."

Making a balance 4/24
     The way of the teacher

Opposition is a structural principal of the universe. In his 1967 study of hierarchies, Arthur Koestler pointed out that all complex systems were balances of opposing forces. Every level in a complex system is a balance between what he called an integrative tendency to be joined into larger entities, and an assertive tendency to exist as an independent whole.

An atom, for example, is a balance between forces of attraction and repulsion–just as the solar system is a balance between the attractive force of gravity and the separative force of centrifugal motion. Nature is a vast hierarchy in which every whole is made up of smaller parts at the same time it is itself a part of something larger. Every level in this hierarchical order is characterized by opposing tendencies to join and to separate.

In The Evolving Self, Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan discussed the same pattern in human development. The “creative motion of life itself” is a dialectic between the desire to join and the desire to be independent. In a series of six stages, moving first toward greater independence, then back toward greater sharing, then back toward independence, all the while incorporating larger and larger realities into the personality and awareness, a living human being is a developing hierarchy.

Kegan calls the stages a person moves through “balances,” because they are periods of relative stability between the child’s desire to be part of a family or other group and the opposing desire to be free and independent. Each of these balances, Kegan says, is a self-contained, coherent reality that tends to be invisible to those at other levels. People at different developmental levels are, as Piaget taught us, literally in different realities.

A world made up of many levels and of many forces in opposition is a world of complex realities. In it, we face hard choices. People who are urging us to fight frequently speak in principled terms, as though things were simple, but honest people who sincerely try to make simple decisions based on clear principles always, sooner or later, find themselves facing decisions that force them to violate one good principle to be true to another.

A familiar illustration poses the question, “Is lying okay?” Most people agree that it isn’t. What, then, should you do if the Gestapo knocks at your door and asks if you are hiding Jews, and the true answer is “yes”?

Well, there are other principles to think about. Is preserving innocent life a higher principle than telling the truth to corrupt officials? By working through such dilemmas, thoughtful people who are motivated by a hunger for reality, for knowledge of how things truly are, gradually clarify their principles, coming to understand higher and higher laws by learning what comfortable ideals we sometimes must sacrifice to preserve something that we love more.

In questions of values, we eventually learn that we are free to choose what to believe based on our desires. Moral thinking begins with the question, “what do I want?”

But it doesn’t end there, because some desires are more intelligent than others.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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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?”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Trapped in an ecology of war 1/24
     The way of the teacher

“Ah," said the mouse, “the world is growing narrower every day. At first it was so wide that I felt anxious. I kept running and was happy to see finally walls to the right and left of me in the distance, but these walls are speeding so fast toward each other that I am already in the last room and there in the corner stands the trap into which I’m running.”

“You need only change the direction in which you’re running,” said the cat and gobbled it up.

Trapped in an Ecology of War

I came home from Vietnam angry, distrustful, and certain that having tasted war I had something to teach younger people about the pathways of peace. I had a lot to learn about what a poor platform anger would be from which to launch a campaign for peace. I spent the next fifteen years trying to transform a contentious little school in a contentious little town into an orderly place. It became my personal little Vietnam–a long, drawn out process of failure.

I was astonished over and over again at the resilience of the system. I left the school twice when experience made staying seem impossible; but, after hard study, I returned each time renewed and certain that, this time, I understood what needed to be done. My last bout, as principal, began when I took a job that five people had held in the previous six years, blithely certain that I knew enough to do better. It ended in a stormy board meeting at which five hundred disgruntled people came to the school gymnasium to participate in the local sport of winter politics.

Each of us contends against systems, vast in their scale and deep in their effects, that organize us into patterns that often operate outside our field of vision. Just as geese fly south in the winter without understanding the urge they feel, so we often act for reasons we cannot name. As with magnetic force or gravity, we cannot see the forces that work on us and through us, though we can see their effects. They are manifest in patterns around us, and if we do not learn to see and evade some attractions, we are organized into contests that may not serve our best purposes.

As we learn better to recognize those patterns, we are better able to see that people who are organized to oppose us by those patterns are not necessarily our enemies. It is the patterns themselves that we need to overcome. There is an ecology of war--an ecology of evil, if you will.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Teaching in troubled times
     The little secrets that encourage happiness

After the shooting, I asked people about Abel, but nobody knew much. He took his dog with him everywhere he went, a mongrel that looked to be part border collie. He worked at the school for a while, filling in on temporary jobs. His dog followed him through the building, waiting patiently while Abel scraped paint off the stage floor or put new paint on a door. When I tried to call up an image of him, I drew a blank. He’d been invisible to me.

My classes at school were full of students who came from a world more like Abel’s than like those of their middle-class teachers. The intelligence of orderly families embedded in an orderly tribe had been weakened a century before when proud hunters lost their way and became unimportant in the economic life of folks restricted to a reservation. Many Salish men turned to alcohol. Many children grew up without parents at all, in boarding schools.

Abel lived in a rented room on the top floor of the Mission Hotel. That was its official name. People who lived there were having a hard time of it, and they called it the Heartbreak Hotel.

When it was built early in the century, it had been the largest building in town, except for the brick church at the Jesuit Mission. The hotel was three stories tall, square and vertical. The builders made no attempt to blend it into its surroundings. It had that erect Victorian readiness to impose its grandeur, like a man in white spats refusing to acknowledge muddy streets.

Unfortunately, St. Ignatius never lived up to expectations. People who came seldom had money for lodging. They stayed with relatives or friends. By the time I became director of the valley’s volunteer ambulance, the hotel had become a low rent apartment. It was just up the hill from the bridge across Mission Creek. In his book The Triggering Town the poet Richard Hugo discusses revision using a poem about boys throwing a dog off that bridge. “Can you imagine the intellectual poverty of living in a place like St. Ignatius?” he asked once in a workshop. It made me laugh, but it also made me wonder, “Could I?”

One evening just before Christmas, Abel closed his door and began drinking. A little past midnight, the tenants next door heard a gunshot, then voices, then another gunshot. They called 911. The town cop followed a county deputy as he unholstered his .44 and stepped into the back door of the hotel. He worked his way slowly up the narrow stairs, freezing at each creek, studying each doorway, holding his gun ready.

When the officers reached the third floor, the stepped into the bathroom across the banister from Abel’s room. “Abel, this is the police,” the county deputy called loudly. “What’s going on?”

Silence. Then the door opened. Suddenly the hall exploded with the roar of gunfire. The deputy shot back.

The silence continued roaring for minutes after the shots. The air smelled of powder. A man was dead.

I arrived a few minutes later. I used scissors to bare Abel’s chest, being careful not to cut through the bullet holes, which the crime lab would want intact. I listened through the stethoscope to nothing. Then I closed his fixed, lightless eyes.

I walked back into the hall where a growing crowd of police officers was gathering from all over the county, with cameras, tape measures, and memo pads. The scene needed to be left intact--shell casings where they had fallen, Abel’s empty pistol where he had dropped it.

“He’s dead,” I said to the officers. I walked downstairs, slipped through the crowd that had gathered outside. Many of them were children. I got into the ambulance, which I’d left running with the heater on. It was warm and four other crew members were there. They had waited to see if I needed help because the police wanted to minimize traffic inside. Nobody felt like talking.

Our Habits become our Habitat

When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I thought about Abel’s apartment. His habitat had been small, cluttered, disorderly--like his life. So it is with us all--our habitat is made of our habits. We develop habits, our second nature, and these habits create an environment. For teachers, the important point is that which habits we get, like which language we speak, depends on those around us. If we are surrounded by intelligent folk who practice all the little habits that encourage happiness, we tend to become more intelligent ourselves. We get up in the morning, put things away, brush our teeth. If we are especially fortunate, we grow up among folk who practice the harder habits of kindness, reliability, cheerfulness, diligence, and honesty.

Most teachers learn quickly the astonishing power family habits have over children. Of course, everyone who grows up surrounded by an order where such habits as patience and compassion are practiced and taught doesn’t automatically learn them. That would be too easy, too destructive of our freedom. But it’s just as true that children who live every day with harshness, fickleness, pessimism, and rage would have to be unusually gifted to see past these to something better.

A few nights before Abel was killed, a man down the street had jerked his former wife’s arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder. While the police cuffed him and put him in their car, we loaded her on our cot to take her to the hospital. He arched his back in the gentle night air, proud and unsubmissive, a warrior, his head thrown back and his long hair free in the red glare of light, his wrists bound but his spirit wild.

His woman sat on the couch crying. Three children--the youngest was about six and the oldest about ten--begged to go with us, excited by all the commotion. The man and the woman yelled at each other about a set of keys, which he said were for his car and she said were for her trailer. It was Tuesday. If the kids were at school in the morning which was only five or six hours away, I doubted they would be with teachers who knew much about their lives.

What those kids need, more than information, is an invitation to join a community, a moral order, enacted and clarified daily by adults who, with full knowledge of how the world goes wrong, stay committed nonetheless to making things right.

Thinking about Folkways

In 1906, William Graham Sumner in his seminal work Folkways said what I was learning through experience eighty some years later: “The education which forms character and produces faith in sound principles of life. . .is borne on the mores. It is taken in from the habits and atmosphere of the school, not from the school text-books.”

He further noted that though “we apply schooling as a remedy for every social phenomenon which we do not like,” the efficacy of information to change behavior is only “the superstition of education.” In fact, “book learning is addressed to the intellect, not to the feelings, but the feelings are the spring of action.”

Though “folkways” is usually used as a benign term to refer to such activities as quilting or fiddle-playing or dancing, Sumner uses it to refer to the traditions by which a society shapes its people, and in addition to celebrations and arts he also examines as examples of folklife such institutions as slavery, infanticide, torture, harlotry, and gladiator sports. He reminds us of the sheer educative power of what we celebrate, tolerate, pursue and repeat.

The ordinary stories that people tell along the way to all else they do exert a tremendous shaping influence on people. The way this happens can be deceptively simple. Here’s Bud Cheff, Sr., a seventy-eight-year-old rancher from the Mission Valley in western Montana, chatting about his early life:

Whenever Adelle and I went somewhere, or when we were returning home, I always put the money I had left into a big jar I kept buried. When I got a chance to buy the land where the ranch now sits, I dug out my money cache, and got out the jug that I had buried. I poured it all out on a tarp and counted it; I had just enough money to pay cash for that piece of land, 160 acres. There were pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollar bills, five, ten and twenty dollar bills.

I went into the house and had Adelle and all the kids come out to my shed to see what I had on my tarp, and they all just stared at it. Adelle knew I’d been saving money, but had no idea it amounted to that much and the kids were so excited because they had never seen that much money at one time. I let them each take a handful of small change and then I gathered it up, went to the courthouse in Polson, and paid for my land.

I can testify from personal experience that a person who listens to this man tell his ordinary stories about raising a family and building a ranch will feel tugs of desire to become a better person: to laught more, work harder, have more friends. Children who grow up immersed in such everyday narratives probably do not notice the effortless way they encode a host of values--in this example, perseverance, postponement of gratification, affection for spouse and children, delight in the chance to struggle for a dream. It is through such stories that young people learn what the rules of life are, what roles are available to them, how to react to crises, what is worth wanting. In a way that comes to them so naturally it’s easy to miss seeing, they learn all the little secrets of being human. It is at this level of daily narrating, which goes on among us without pause, that a people shapes its morality and that of the next generation.

Through the folkways, Sumner points out, a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes. . .the most essential and important education.”

Many schools today, reflecting community mores, are becoming scenes of increasing moral disorder. When I finished a presentation at a recent education conference, a teacher came to me crying. Only a couple of months before, a student had come to her middle school in a small rural community in Washington, and shot and killed a teacher and two other students. Such stories are no longer rare. Though the notion that we respond to depression or anger by getting gun and shooting people is probably taught by movies and song lyrics more often than by families and communities, its is inescapable that our schools now serve thousands of young people who have been left to find their mores in media culture.

The Schools We’ve Built

What do such youth learn when they get to school? Many teachers and administrators have had their own mores shaped within impersonal bureacracies where the folkways that develop tend to support the success ethic. Even in the absence of corruption (which is rarely absent), our work in large organizations by its very division into small pieces tends to frustrate our hopes and divide us from our fellows, creating an environment where self-interest flourishes. Self-interest is often followed by selfishness, which is always followed by pessimism. As workers become adept at hearing information at the scale of their specialty and at filtering out other information, what makes us powerful, our ability to organize, ironically also deafens us to what we would better hear.

For example, the superintendent of a school district who is doing her job often thinks in time frames of years or decades, trying to hear the slow-moving information of demographic shifts and legislative trends that will change enrollments and budgets and community expectations, monitoring the deterioration of buildings and buses, anticipating shifts in social values. Though the superintendent might be aware that a particular teacher is weak, she’s probably more interested in changing hiring practices or training programs than she is in changing that one teacher’s performance this afternoon.

A good teacher, on the other hand, will tend to be more attentive to faster-moving information, such as what happened with a particular student this morning and what adjustments the staff can make this week.

Though both the superintendent and the teacher may share the same ultimate goals which require each of them to do their part at their level, when they meet to discuss problems, they sometimes don’t quite hear one another. Too often, they even feel pitted against one another. It becomes easy to become cyncial, looking out for one’s own best interests. It becomes easy, without constant refreshing at the springs of shared hope and constant reminders of the virtues we need to practice to realize those hopes, for self-interested careerism to prevail over shared community purpose and the striving for moral clarity. Unconstrained careerism is simply old-fashioned lust dressed up in the fashion of our age.

For the dedicated careerist, there is little to resist sliding into other forms of self-indulgence, and it should a frightening fact that many citizens of the modern age have become, like Romans of the late empire who craved ever bloodier arena sports, addicts of the wares of corporate entertainers who lace their products with lusts more toxic than nicotine. By adopting savage entertainments into their folkways, the Romans transformed themselves into a people who took their greatest pleasure in watching pain and bloodshed. Children amused themselves by torturing animals. The planet was ransacked for beasts that were allowed to tear apart convicts or slaves for Sunday entertainment. Forms of human torture to amuse the masses became ever more ingenious and perverse.

Though for us such entertainments are most often “only” simulated by movie companies rather than happening in actuality, to the human imagination such a distinction matters little. As the Vandals began destroying Carthage, the cries of those being slaughtered in the streets mingled with the cries of victims in the arena. The death throes of a civilization became indistinguishable from its entertainments. In some American cities today, the carnage that awaits theater audiences inside is not much different than what may be witnessed at any instant on the streets outside.

We already have among us thousands of young people who are more entertained than horrified by films of the Holocaust shown to them by teachers who, desperately, still believe that such scenes have to be horrifying. We no longer need to guess where it leads. We can read about it in the paper nearly every week.

Living in Possible Worlds

Despite the problems teachers face today one thing that never changes is that the best teaching remains committed not simply to preparing young people for the world that surrounds them, but to bringing better worlds into being. To do that, the best teachers must be willing to live by the rules of a world that could be and ought to be rather than by the rules of the world as it is. Though contemporary debates about goodness often descend into arguments about jurisdiction--which groups will control the debate--our only hope for unity nonetheless lies in the possibility that each one of us, from whatever cultural or ethnic group, can conclude that some things are good, and that we can refresh and rejuvenate our folkways and build into our ways of living what Sumner called “monuments, festivals, mottoes, oratory, and poetry” that teach that it’s good to help other folks get something they need, that it’s good to be moved by the plight of our neighbors, that it’s good to be gentle, and that it’s good to practice the patience and selflessness necessary to have friends.

The alternative is moral anarchy, in which, Sumner warns us, we can all lose our way. When all stories have equal legitimacy, people’s “notions, desires, purposes, and means become untrue.” Only the willfully blind don’t see that large groups of people today are moving into such a condition. Much of popular culture seems intent on fostering cultural suicide. Without vision, the people perish.

If we don’t like where we are headed, the solution, open to any of us, is to change directions. We can identify and act on “correct notions of virtue” in matters big and small, making them our habits. We can, for example, refuse to attend “R” movies, we can give money to agencies that help the poor, we can be honest in paying our taxes. People who take such actions soon see that it is the “only success policy.” They soon find themselves becoming prosperous, soon find their towns becoming beautiful and safe, find their farmlands becoming bountiful and sustainable. A few such people can create a community that neglected children can join.

Fortunately for my little town, the Salish culture was never completely destroyed. Though the tribe has its share of politicians who have learned from oppression to imitate the oppressors in ruthless and dishonest pursuit of wealth and power, it also has a large number of quiet folk who have struggled for years to keep alive their belief in a better way. In recent years, some tribal leaders have emerged strong from their long history of hardship. More or less ignoring those leaders who are too bitter and distrustful to move forward, they are rebuilding a living moral order, and they are reaching out to lost children to join a real community, to remember better ways. Though they face enormous problems, their faith is strong. Teachers can learn much from them.

They know that when we’ve strayed from a good path, our lives often take on a momentum that carries us father than we meant to go. It becomes harder and harder to believe we can stop or go back. We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught, and we need to be given courage more often than we need to be given information.

Twenty minutes after I got home from examining Abel, my radio went off again. Mission Ambulance, please return to the Mission Hotel. An officer is down.

When I got there, the deputy who had shot Abel was writhing on the floor, gasping for air. His forehead glistened with sweat. He had trouble hearing or answering questions. His hands and feet were numb. He felt sharp pains in his chest.

Hyperventilation. It begins when a person breathes too quickly, but the feeling is that he can’t get enough air. The faster he breathes, the more he feels air hunger. It’s a common pattern in our lives: we do the wrong thing, and the more we do it the worse things get and the more we feel we need to keep doing it. It was a pattern Abel knew.

A good coach can help, standing outside the problem, staying calm, reminding the person of what he knows but, at the moment, feels wrong. It’s as simple as standing close to the person, speaking into his ear, convincing him that he can breathe normally, reminding him how to do it. It is possible for one person to infect another with calm, with faith, and maybe even with goodness.

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and lose faith that our small contributions will make enough difference. One spring after being caught up in a particularly nasty and futile political war, I visited a lake in the Mission Mountains. It was a calm day, and I tossed a rock into the water, then watched. I followed the ripples as far as I could. Eventually, at the edge of my eyesight, the ripples merged into riffles caused by wind and other disturbances, becoming part of an endless dance. It was a half-hour before I lost completely the pattern of my stone amid the endlessly changing patterns of the lake’s surface.

I lost sight of it, but I never saw it stop.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

A teacher’s faith
     Love, too, is a form of cognition

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. . .We are far too easily pleased. C.S. Lewis

We are haunted by the world that we find, despite ourselves, is really here. I think fondly now of the young people who have worked their way into that haunting. There was April, a fifteen-year-old girl with eyes that spat fire at any school authority who talked to her. Though she refused to answer most questions, sometimes she would snarl an obscenity in response to a routine classroom request. This landed her in my office quite frequently.

I tried to break her sullen silence by asking questions and suggesting ways I thought she might be feeling. After a serious of fruitless “conferences” with her the first months of school, I sat with her one morning for a half hour without getting so much as an eyebrow’s twitch in answer to my questions about why she had cursed the science teacher or what I should do now that she had been kicked out of class. I tried several long minutes of silence, hoping the weight of it would prompt her to speak. Finally, she said, “I haven’t ate for two days.”

I brought her a doughnut from the outer office, but she wouldn’t even look at it. “Would you like me to find something else?” I asked.

No answer. I sat and looked at her for several minutes.

“My grandpa died on the couch,” she said.

I nodded and listened, waiting for her to go on. She didn’t.

“What happened?” I asked vaguely.

“I drug him out to the porch.”

This seemed like a breakthrough. She was admitting to a difficult situation, possibly asking for help. Her grandfather’s death might account for her rebellious conduct. “When was this?” I asked, groping for detail.

“I was six.”

She was talking about something nine years before—something, for someone her age, a great distance away. She had communicated to me only with grimaces for months. Even my simple “hellos” in the hall seemed like annoyances to her, so I grappled with what to say now that wouldn’t trigger another shutdown. Letting me hear anything at all about her personal life felt like an important step.

“How did you feel?” I asked lamely.

“It didn’t bother me. It didn’t mean anything.”

That was all. She wouldn’t talk further and became hostile when I asked questions. I offered her the doughnut again, and she mumbled, “I’m not hungry.” She sat with her eyes fixed on nothing, wearing the denim jacket carefully splattered with her own blood that had become her uniform.

A few days later the math teacher, a matronly woman prone to losing control of her classes and reacting with shrill outbursts, came into my office pushing April in front of her. The teacher was puffing and scarlet. April, again, was stone-faced. The teacher told me what had happened, in her wide-eyed, fearful way. She had asked April to open her book, and April had uttered the most provocatively obscene response she knew.

Since I thought I should separate them, I asked April to sit in the outer office while I talked with the teacher. April raised her middle finger and stuck it in my face, snarling profanities. “April, sit down.” I said quietly. “I’ll talk to you in a minute.”

“Go to hell!” she swore, then called me a string of names, whirled, and left my office. When she got to the front door and slammed it open, I said, “April, you can’t leave campus.”

More swearing. She kept walking. She was on probation for a host of the usual crimes—alcohol, vandalism, and the like—and wasn’t supposed to be unsupervised. I called the sheriff’s office to let them know she had left school without permission. When a deputy got to her house, she wasn’t there. Neither were any adults. Her boyfriend, who had spent the night, was still passed out on the living room floor.

She never came back to school. One teacher told me that it was a good thing. She hadn’t learned anything in the classes that she continually disrupted. She didn’t do homework, didn’t bother with class activities, made no effort on tests, and was never pleasant.

The mystery for me was not that she had left school, but that she had kept coming for so long. No one at home woke her or told her to go. Her mother had left school functionally illiterate when she was younger than April. Now, she was involved in an addiction treatment program, trying to overcome her problem with drinking, but for most of April’s life she had been simply unavailable. April had never met her father, though a string of abusive and drunken boyfriends of her mother’s had passed through her life. She had lived in several places, with a number of aunts and uncles, and it was pretty much left up to her where she stayed.

One teacher told me I should have kicked her out long before. In a limited sense, I didn’t disagree. If we lack the will to defend a good order against those who, out of whatever deprivations or ignorances drive them, we will lose the order and with it the means of helping anybody. But the important question is this: kick her out to where?

She is here, with us. A few months later I heard from April again. Sometime in the middle of the night, she and two of her friends broke the window on my father’s car, got inside, tore the ignition switch out of the dash and hot wired it. They drove it to a reservation several hundred miles away where they ran it into a ditch and abandoned it. Our failures with our children will haunt us.

I met her downtown a few months after the incident. She came up to me and, without making eye contact, apologized quickly in a mumbling tone for having stolen my Dad’s car. Two of her friends stood off a few feet. They snickered, and she quickly retreated, joining them. “It’s good to see you again, April,” I said. She snorted contemptuously, and, without looking back at me, wandered down the street with her gang. But I think she had heard some of what I hadn’t been able to tell her.

Everyone who works in schools these days meets students like April. In some neighborhoods, there are a great many of them. April lives in the wake of the breakdown of a traditional Salish order that her great-grandparents knew. Parenting in that culture was often indulgent by European standards, allowing children considerable free rein. When there were no worlds but that of nature and that of the tribe, this worked well. Children could explore and observe, gradually joining the circle of grown-ups and the order that they preserved.

But as white settlers flooded into the valley, the folk were surrounded by worlds which offered the children choices their traditions didn’t constrain. At the same time, the circle of grown-ups itself was broken. Many children wandered into destructive ways. The lives of April’s grandparents and her parents were disordered by alcohol and a sense of having lost the story, the plot and theme of their lives. April had received neither strong and attentive parenting nor the support of an extended circle of cousins and grandparents. She was free to find her own way, in a world noisy with hucksters selling seductive cultural trash.

It isn’t only on Indian reservations that children are growing up outside traditional community order. Through slavery and kindred betrayals of our best ideals, and the political and economic opportunism injustice fosters, many families have been undermined, sowing seeds of hostility and distrust that continue growing. Communities are kept in order by a shared commitment to justice. When too many of us look away from injustice, every person has to look out for himself. We lose the ability to live together well. In an important sense, when one person loses his place wrongly, we all lose our places.

Even in places isolated from the direct effects of slavery, no neighborhood is without children who, through misfortune or incompetence, are growing up without being taught the basics of living together with dignity and decency. They are the greatest challenge facing our schools, and they are rapidly becoming the greatest problem facing our nation.

In a better world, each child would be embedded in a loving family, and each family would be embedded in a just community. Teachers need to remain committed to building such a world, though it’s easy to see that history is a terrible failure, full of crime and bloodshed, and that none of us can walk out of it. There is nowhere for us to go. Our fate as persons is linked to the fate of the world. My fate is linked to April’s. And hers is linked to mine.

I wondered what prompted April to come up to me on a street and apologize. I think that at some level she wanted my approval, wanted to join the world she thought I lived in, if only she really could. In her rebellion was a shout that she wanted to be free. I think she wanted to be taught how.

To teach children like April to get free, we need to draw them into an order that surrounds them. The hard work is building that order. It’s hard because we can’t have such an order without authority, but our age is distrustful of authority—and with good cause. Many people have noted the statistics of teenage mothers, violence, and drug abuse that indicate a widespread disintegration of traditional society. Nonetheless, any suggestion to change is met by reflexive protest against any authoritative action. Such a rejection, of course, is anarchy. Hannah Arendt once commented that because we did not understand authority, we were in danger of losing our freedom.

Freedom should be the first goal of education. The best education is a not merely an accumulation of facts or information, but a passing on of the arts of freedom, which are deeply related to the arts of community building. Communities are ordered systems, and all ordered systems are balances between opposing forces of freedom and constraint, as an atom is a balance between attractive and repulsive forces within electrons and protons or as the solar system is a balance between centrifugal and gravitational forces. Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan has described human growth as a continual striving for balance between a strong desire to be independent and an equally strong desire to join. the balance is freedom, a tension that exists in a good community between polar opposites: anarchy and tyranny.

A teacher who is uncertain that authoritative acts will be supported tends to look away from small situations that need to be dealt with, and the school becomes somewhat like a body in which white blood cells are reluctant to respond to invading bacteria. When school systems meet crises by paralyzing themselves in endless arguments, granting no person or group authority to respond until all are agreed. Systems whose parts aren’t given enough freedom soon lose contact with their changing environment and they eventually collapse, to be replaced by other systems. Systems that don’t constrain their parts enough are unable act as a whole, and they are also destroyed, as

We need to remember that systems can take authority not from force but from the consent of the governed. People can willingly give others authority, within limits, because they understand the need for it.

We live in an unprecedentedly organized world where everything from the glass of water at our kitchen sink to the newspaper at our doorstep reaches us through complicated and interconnected systems. To keep such a world working, we must standardize procedures and keep careful schedules. To keep order in a society as complex as ours, persons need to accept considerable constraint. If we are to keep order without abolishing freedom, we need a more profound understanding of authority than we have often had.

Most of us work in large institutions that monitor and regulate us through both formal and informal controls. We tend to forget that such approaches work only within limits. Despite the many formal controls, we keep finding toxic byproducts of our culture in our water and every issue of the newspaper reveals further moral, political, and economic horrors, which lead to demands for more controls.

We will be able to relax our controls over one another only to the extent that we find and accept some authority other than mere force. Without authority, we cannot act as one, accomplishing things that require our cooperation, such as producing and distributing food, playing symphonies, or caring for the poor. Musicians submit to the authority of a conductor because there are many ways to play a symphony, but if each musician pursues an individual interpretation, the result is not music. All are deprived of the joy they can only create by working together. The conductor’s authority sets them free to join in beautiful music.

With primarily a bureaucratic understanding of authority, we have created inflexible systems that stifle and deaden us. The essence of bureaucratic control is its impersonality. You will be treated exactly like everyone else. That is, without care. Our teacher Erik Erikson pointed out that when adolescents meet the impersonal demands of institutions at just the age when they are demanding to be treated as persons, their very identity may be threatened. They may rebel “with the force of wild animals.” Like April.

We need an alternative.

Teaching is that alternative—not teaching as career so much as teaching as a way of life. The essence of teaching is persuasion, drawing another toward what we see and love by living it and by sharing it, and by encouraging others to freely accept what is offered. This reliance upon persuasion grows from a faith that if what is truly good is offered as one of the choices, people will freely choose it. Rather than through coercion, teachers work through offering demonstrations, opportunities, and resources.

An important goal of teaching children should be to teach them to be teachers—not professional classroom instructors unless they are so inclined—but citizens of the kingdom of hope who believe that others can become better and more powerful creatures than they are and that such a becoming would be a good thing and that most people, when they can see, will freely choose such a course.

To believe that is to live by faith. Unfortunately, my experience of the world and of many schools insists that many people, and many of them avowed teachers, give their allegiance to a different faith: that of coercion and control. Controllers believe that the world can be made to work if only enough control can be built into our systems. This often leads, step by step, to faith in manipulation, deception, and intimidation to attain ends that seem worth the costs.

A controller’s authority comes from the power to reward and punish. A teacher’s authority comes from knowledge of the world. We believe what they say is true.

The goal of control is control, but the goal of teaching is freedom. A teacher gives away the best that he or she has been given. Teaching authority wants the student to become the teacher’s equal.

Believing that the goal of teaching is freedom, some people have concluded that children need to be unconstrained. But freedom is not an absence of constraint. In fact, obedience is the first step toward freedom, and the truly free are in many ways the most obedient. They color within the lines, cross the t’s, and detach the chads.

The developmental stages of growth into freedom are, first, obedience, and then negotiation, and, finally, freedom. When each of our children was a toddler, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. Each of our five children went through a time when the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. We slapped little hands gently and said “No!” Of course, it would have been easier simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but we wanted to teach rather than to design a mini-world where they neither met nor caused trouble.

But in general we did not turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of reach—a controller’s strategy. Valerie and I set about surrounding our children with the order that we wanted them to learn. Much of the brilliance of Montessori’s method derives from her insight that children grow by being held in a place of order and taught to sustain that order.

The rhythm of teaching, at every level, is holding and contradicting: we hold the person and sustain the order at the same time we contradict actions that threaten or destroy that order. Of course, this approach also has limits. Cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger were put out of reach.

But the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. It is true that when you give people opportunities they are not yet responsible enough to manage prudently, they will often act badly, like my daughter joyfully shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. But such actions are only problems when your goal is “appropriate behavior"—if your goal is free and intelligent action, they are teaching opportunities.

We begin with obedience because it is as necessary to freedom as air resistance is to flight. When I slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn? I would have been deeply disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, even though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was not a law that expressed our final will. It was only a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

Our philodendron rule was given in faith that our daughter would question it, not in a spirit of rebellion but out of hunger to know and understand. We knew she would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature our answers—both implicit and explicit—would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Eventually, we allowed her to help with some tasks, such as watering the plants. As she asked to do more, we negotiated with her, and gradually her responsibilities and freedom increased to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but should be touched. They could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beneath the philodendron rule lay deeper laws, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live.

Our rules in many organizations, including schools, are not the highest standard to which we aspire. They are often the lowest standard that we will accept, the lower limit of the realm, the point below which we will shift to coercive methods. In the absence of virtue, we are forced to compel obedience. But we should never be satisfied with obedience or think it is our goal. The higher reality that we are trying to teach—freedom—can’t be legislated, but it is death to forget it.

As organizations that are committed to control rather than to human growth deteriorate, regulations flourish as desperation for order becomes a desperate grasping for further control. Predictably, the controls often aggravate a spirit of protest and rebellion. All sides lose faith in teaching, and begin to fight for control. We put much effort into error avoidance, hiding the philodendron, rather than goal seeking, teaching a good relationship with plants.

Imagine the difficulty a child would have learning to walk if he were protected from falling. If his every slight imbalance was met swiftly with a hand that corrected it, the child might not fall, but he also might not learn balance, finding limits by falling past them. If the entire room were padded, the toddler might find it impossible to get hurt but also impossible to walk.

By the time I got to know April, her identity at school was almost completely that of a rebel. She had been punished and punished and punished, but she had been taught little. She had been asked to comply, but she hadn’t yet trusted any invitations to join.

Most teachers were seeing of April in terms of her past and her present, which were troubled. When we respond to students on other terms than faith in their future, we abdicate the hope they need. I didn’t get angry at my daughter for wrecking a plant because I was living partly in her future, which, since I could see it better than she, I was able to guide her toward. In that future, she joined me in an order that I loved. She believed what I taught her: that she was a powerful being growing toward a completion that would in time be wholly hers.

In a good school, as in a good town, sustaining a good order is the daily work. Understanding the wisdom and necessity of that order should be the central preoccupation of the curriculum. A faith in teaching and freedom is the first principle.

From the principle of freedom, three closely related principles emerge which we also need to learn and teach: a commitment to stewardship rather than ownership, a commitment to ecological rather than to fragmented thinking, and a commitment to working beyond diversity amid a larger unity.

One of the early pleasures of my marriage was brought to me by living in the place where my wife’s father had worked, building corrals and planting trees. Just before he died he moved a mountain ash from the foothills to what became our yard. It couldn’t have been more than a couple feet tall the last time he saw it. Each year as I pruned and watered it, I thought about his life. The tree was taller than our house and every fall when it bore enormous clusters of brilliant red berries, I shared the world with him. Without me to be glad for it, some of his work would have been wasted. Without him, my life would have been less abundant. Though we missed each other in time, we are bound to one another through stewardship.

Stewardship is easy to understand when we discuss the earth, since it’s easy to see that the land outlasts all those who live through it, but we can also begin to understand the ways we are stewards of many other things—the learning and wisdom of the past, for example. It does the world no good that people once struggled against ignorance and found light if that learning is not kept alive by stewards who spend enchanted hours understanding, who keep knowledge in good order through their own efforts, and who dedicate some part of their time to passing it on. A library can’t help us if we don’t study, if we are not stewards of what it holds.

Stewardship is not the same as collective ownership, which doesn’t necessarily dissolve the destructive tendencies inherent in conceiving of the world as something we possess rather than as something to which we belong. Collective ownership can be even worse than individual ownership when it undermines the commitment to personal responsibility that is the hallmark of stewardship. Ownership may or may not lead to care, but stewardship is care.

Understanding stewardship can help us understand the liberating possibilities of authority. One who acts as a steward over something—a parent over a family, a farmer over a farm, a teacher over a class, a priest over a parish, a physician over a skilled procedure, a talented singer over a voice, a wealthy person over a business—will not realize his gifts without authority to carry out his stewardship. To say that a farmer is “only” a steward of his land does not mean that he must allow others to come and go without constraints, making such use of it as they see fit. Farms—as well as wealth, intelligence, and talent—are given to persons for the benefit of the community, and gifts, in all their forms, create obligations. The farmer’s obligation to care for the land gives him authority.

When we act as if organizations were contests for control, we tend to become jealous of the authority of others. When we begin seeing them as ordered networks of nested stewardships, we can more easily see that in protecting the freedom of others to exercise authority, we are protecting our own. To be good stewards, principals need authority to decide many issues that affect more than one classroom, especially those over which teachers may disagree. Similarly, teachers need authority to keep their classrooms safe and work-oriented, to ensure that each student is cherished and invited to join. And students need some authority over their own learning as well as over school facilities and equipment they are privileged to use.

The better we understand the way stewards need authority as well as accountability, the more likely we are to be able to resolve conflicts. Many disagreements in schools are less over what is done than who gets to decide. When we place our faith in control, we have trouble knowing where to stop. The administrative state we are creating spreads its tentacles into every reach of our lives, searching for noncompliance that interferes with its plans. But as we place our faith in stewardship, handling problems with a strong bias in favor of teaching rather than coercing, we become deeply attentive to limits, more ready to grant others freedom.

Some decisions belong to persons. Some belong to families. Some belong to teachers. They don’t all belong to administrators or boards. In schools committed to stewardships, teachers and other authorities would teach respect for authority by ensuring that the authority they exercise is respectful. In tribes that pass on their morality through customs and rituals, those who hold the authority to perform these rituals do not own the authority in the way that one might own a pocket knife. Rather, they are stewards of an authority to which they must be as submissive as any. When they use such authority as a personal possession they begin the process of destroying it.

The hard work we face is not tearing down central authority in the name of empowerment, but balancing the many levels in a school, clarifying which decisions belong with the student, which with the family, and which with the administration, and which elsewhere.

The alternative is unlimited competition, which in practice amounts to little more than a political theory of anarchy. In anarchy, the strong defeat the poor and weak, and secrecy and lies triumph over openness and honesty.

We have too often tried to substitute competition for stewardship, and our schools thereby tend toward anarchy, filled not with students trying to understand the old verities of truth, beauty, and goodness, which command little respect in the market, but with students imitating many of their teachers in trying to get as much as they can as quickly and easily as possible.

One problem with this is that competition motivates only those who think they might win. Students like April, who began losing early, are soon encouraged to become hostile toward the game. To admit an interest in it is to accept failure.

Stewards are judged by the use they make of the gifts they have been given, not by how they compare with others. A good school establishes an economy of gifts, where every person is a student, laboring to receive the best that has yet been created, and where every person is a teacher, laboring to give away what has been received. Children who grow up in loving families already know much of this way of life. For children like April, school may be their best chance to experience it.

A society of careful stewards creates abundance whereas, despite the propaganda, unconstrained competition leads to scarcity. As we fan desires for the highest test scores and access to a few lucrative jobs, we create failures for the many, fostering indifference, docility and open hostility among them in the name of success for the few. We identify the problems we thereby cause, mounting ever more costly programs to mitigate the symptoms of selfishness that are legion among us, without seeing that the failures are as much a product of the system as are the honor students. By design we teach our children that their worth is determined by their readiness to defeat their fellows in the scramble for a handful of bright tokens tossed among them.

Our best models for understanding networks of nested stewardships have been created by ecologists trying better to understand ecosystems. They have done pioneering work in advancing our understanding of complex orders, and the way decision-making is distributed throughout them.

A couple of years ago I was lifting my rototiller into the back of my pickup and it slipped, catching my hand between the sheet metal side of the tiller and the side of the pickup box. This severed the tendons to one of my fingers, freeing that finger from my will.

It was eery to exert conscious effort to move one of my fingers and to get no result. Nothing. I couldn’t feel where the command from my conscious mind went, which led me to think about the strangeness that had always been there: I didn’t how to move my finger.

That is, I had no conscious awareness of the system that allowed me to move my finger. The elaborate networks of cells, nerves, muscles, synapses, tendons and bones that I activate moment by moment, that is me, in a sense, was completely beyond my consciousness. Each day as I go about my business, millions of cells in my body are born, millions do the work they have been created to do, and millions die. As far as I know, they don’t know that I exist.

I am made of systems I cannot perceive. I am also a part of systems I can’t perceive.

The scientist Lewis Thomas, watching ants busily scurrying across the ground, said that the movement of individual ants appeared random and confused. They struggled against obstacles, took detours and appeared to have no clear idea of what they were doing or were supposed to be doing. But as he shifted his focus to the whole colony, he saw the work that was being done, smoothly and efficiently. Individual ants appeared to be neurons in one large nervous system, as though the entire colony were one mind, possessed of an intelligence and a purpose of which the individual ants were only dimly aware.

Barry Lopez watched herds of musk oxen in the north approached by Arctic wolves. Without apparent communication, they moved together into a circle around the calves and drove the wolves away with their hooves. They became, when they needed to, one organism with an intelligence and a purpose that no one of them on its own could fulfill.

Aldo Leopold saw an even bigger picture. “You cannot love the game without loving the predator,” he told us. “The land is a single organism.”

Ecologists have enriched us with their increasingly precise descriptions of the way every whole is also a part of a yet larger whole: populations are embedded in communities, communities within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the earth, which is one thing. Of course, it is the precision that is new. The way of seeing itself is ancient. Our greatest teachers have always understood.

Part of where that understanding leads is quite practical. The curriculum and all school policies should form a single teaching. The discourse at school board meetings should be of a piece with the principles that are taught in the classrooms. It can’t be any other way, if we take our teaching seriously.

Unlike cells and musk oxen, folks achieve what they can of unity through discourse. The colony of muscles cells that are a human heart normally contract in unity, constrained by an electrical pulse, a message from higher in the system. Their unity creates a strong heartbeat. When the electrical message is absent, the cells go on contracting on their own. The heart quivers in an uncoordinated and ineffective way the French call ventricular anarchy. Lay people call it a heart attack. When most people no longer accept constraining messages that unify them to a common set of principles, the community soon suffers its own cataclysms.

Cities are held together, barely, by a thousand subtle forms of coercion, but their individual wills of persons are not in harmony. Society is sometimes more like a war than a community. Organizations to promote the interests of this or that group proliferate like billboards, seeking not justice or some view of the common good which most people could join, though they often use such language. Instead, they seek their own interests, which they define mostly as accumulating wealth in their own coffers and deflecting costs to some other group.

The shrill polarization that results from arguments designed to win rather than to clarify the truth has led many of us to become cynical about the public realm and the contests that are fought there. As discourse is more and more often used to deceive rather than to reveal, more and more people withdraw from taking any arguments seriously, and we gradually lose the power of discourse which we need if we are to live together. Instead of struggling for honest discourse, people merely pay union dues or send checks to lobbying organizations that protect their interests.

Teachers, more than any other group, have a moral responsibility to reject this approach for themselves. Teachers need to be committed to truth in somewhat the way physicians need to be committed to health. Before physicians are admitted to their profession they must take an oath to “First, do no harm.” The analogous oath for teachers would be, “First, tell no fibs.” If teachers took such an oath and struggled to honor it, this by itself would revolutionize our schools.

For a long time I thought the oath should be, “Always tell the truth,” but though we always know when we are lying (which is one of the strongest arguments against those who would deny the whole concept of truth), to tell the truth we have to know the truth, but it is seldom easy to know, and sometimes impossible. Being honest is more important than telling the truth.

The various academic disciplines are conversations about truth. There are many disciplines we need many approaches to understanding a reality vastly more complex than our theories have yet described. When faced with hard problems, we sometimes move from discipline to discipline, listening to sociologists or neuropsychologists or mathematicians for something that seems likely to help.

All our disciplines are important, though their boundaries should probably be considerably more flexible than the departmental structure of universities seems to allow. In any case, we need to remember that beyond the diversity of intellectual approaches lies a unity that John Dewey, among others, has urged us to seek: “There is only one genuine discipline,” he said. “Namely, that which takes effect in producing habits of observation and judgment that ensure intelligent desires.”

Intelligent desires are what we need. We will be able to have large and highly developed civilizations and genuine freedom only if the desires of individuals are intelligent.

If we follow unintelligent desires, we have hard learning in our future. Our education has more often been advanced by catastrophe than by teaching. Dust from Colorado blew through the halls of Congress in Washington D.C. before a bill was passed in March 1935 creating the Soil Conservation Service. April 14 of that year was called Black Sunday. The soil was lifted from the dry plains of Kansas and Colorado into raging winds that continued for hours. Livestock and wildlife perished, mud filling their lungs and their hides sandblasted. Humans caught outside had only minutes to find shelter, and driving was impossible. The earth had become uninhabitable.

The next day, with dust still hanging in the air, Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin said that “society had developed an unstable adjustment to its environment, from which both must eventually suffer damage or even ruin.” After asking whether the ruin could be made to sustain life, he asked, “yet who wants to be a cell in that kind of a body politic? I for one do not.” In that speech, he first used the phrase “land ethic,” and began teaching that we need to learn to judge our actions by their effect on the earth, since our entire society is embedded in nature in much the way each of us is embedded in society. What we do to the earth happens to us.

This, too, is the work of the teacher: to take from catastrophe not despair but further learning, and to go on articulating the way a better world could work, refusing to abandon hope even as things seem to be falling apart. In hard times, nothing is so vital as an unyielding commitment to better times.

The schools, like any other large market, attract people who aim low to sell their wares. A speaker brought into my community recently to discuss AIDS sparked a controversy when he chose to use violently obscene language to shock students into noticing him. Those who defended his presentation said that people had to be “realistic” about kids these days, pointing out that the students had heard such language before.

During the debate, my thoughts returned to April and a dozen other students similar to her. It was true they had heard such language. They knew all about violent language and violent sex. But they had heard far too little language that placed sex in a different context, that created a different order, a different reality. She would not be free to choose until she was presented with a powerfully articulated and powerfully lived alternative, a real order that adults created, sustained, and offered. We were failing to do that.

To do it, we need to care enough about such an order to practice it as a daily habit. Many schools are failing to create human environments where joy and peace and compassion are realities for the students. Building such an environment is the most important work of schools.

If it doesn’t exist, students can’t choose it. Fortunately, one joyful, peaceful and compassionate teacher can create such an environment for at least a few students, and can even buffer them somewhat from a routinized, contentious and impersonal bureaucracy. However, working contrary to an organization’s norms takes tremendous energy, like staying warm above the Arctic circle.

By ignoring principles pf stewardship and designing our schools as bureaucracies of unrelated specialties, we’ve made the best teaching—that which is not done by lecture or book or activity but by involvement in an intelligent community—unreasonably difficult. At the same time, many families have become little more than adjuncts to the economy, with parents living lives too far away for children to join. Excluded from real worlds both at home and at school, they turn to the corporate storytellers of music and movies for moral guidance, and they turn to unintelligent peer cultures for a sense of belonging.

We are surrounded now by a dust storm of bad practices repaid with a vengeance, in the form of illegitimate births, violence, drug epidemics, careerism, consumerism, and light-mindedness. The crime in our cities has crept into our suburbs and is emerging in our most rural areas. And we continue to think of education as a service provided by the government rather than as an activity through which we live, both as teachers and as learners.

Leopold came to see that conservation, finding a way to live in balance and harmony, could not ultimately be accomplished by government action, because “the real substance” did not lie in “the physical processes of government, but in the mental processes of citizens.”

What he said is true of any genuine reform. He stressed that “the basic defect [in our approach] is this: we have not asked the citizen to assume any real responsibility. We have told him that if he will vote right, obey the law, join some organizations. . .the government will do the rest.

“The formula is too easy to accomplish anything worthwhile. It calls for no effort or sacrifice; no change in our philosophy of values. . .No important change in human conduct is ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections, and our convictions.”

These are troubled times. They have to be. We insist on it. But we are free whenever we so choose to walk out of our noisy contentions, to interrupt our endless tasks and listen to each other, not just the chatter about the incessant rush of events, but the slower and quieter talk that lies behind it, about what we hope and what we fear and what we want.

We are free to talk less about the world that surrounds us and more about the world we would like to build. We are free to plan with others ways of moving closer to that world. We are free to commune not just with those who are here now, but those who have been here before, to search the world for sacred writings, for any text that advances our understanding, for all the forms of scripture, all the ways the voice of the divine is filtered through the human voices of this realm.

We are free to struggle not against some human enemy who needs to be destroyed, but against the anger and hurt and selfishness in our own hearts that makes us want to win, and against the unholiness that runs through our whole history as individuals and as a world, that destroys us as we try to destroy it, but that lets us go as we let it go.

We are free to live not in fear, not in loneliness, not in endless strategies to protect ourselves and get our share, but as students, accepting the gifts that others bring, and as teachers, giving away what we have been given. And we are free to invite our children, all our children, to join us. If we do, we will be okay, and when we are, they will be.

We live and work in a world with many children like April leading lives marred by violence and destruction, bringing pain to themselves and those around them. We hear on the news of hunger and homelessness and war around the world, and nations conduct their business according to the wisdom of men, meeting evil with evil and balancing terror with terror.

In such a world, we can build only one enduring community: the community of fellow seekers of the truth. People who want lesser things—acclaim, money, popularity, success, security—will be easily pitted against one another in hard times, but a person who honestly desires understanding has no need of enemies. It is as hard for many people to live without enemies as it is to live without money. People won’t live without meaning, and contention fills empty lives with purpose.

Our loneliness and urgency lead us to look for large, quick solutions. When I was a principal, I created and partially implemented a school-wide reform plan that changed the curriculum, the teacher evaluation system, the student assessment procedures, and the structure of the school day. I put on workshops, I made fundamental changes to the schedule, and I established a host of new policies.

As I watched who was threatened and why, I came to the conclusion that although organizational structures can help and hinder our work, the homely truth was that good people could make the traditional structure work, and that weak people could subvert any new structure that was created. I became convinced that the hard work in education was not reforming institutions but helping people grow. This can only be done one person at a time. The solutions to our problems will not come quickly from political action, but slowly, from teaching.

I also learned that to do the real work, no one needs to await better times. We can follow nature’s model for creating a new order. Entire plant communities are regularly displaced by new communities, but this isn’t done in a grand gesture with trumpets and proclamations. It often happens so gradually that an unobservant stroller may be unaware that he is standing in the midst of momentous changes. Nature does her work through principles we can all use.

A few years ago, knapweed was nonexistent in western Montana. Today, it has displaced other plants on thousands of acres. Knapweed’s first principle is alertness to opportunity. Any disturbance to the land is viewed as a possible chance to get a toehold. No opening is too slight for at least an attempt. A single plant may produce 20,000 seeds, broadcasting them everywhere in a biological form of hope that a few might take root. If the first knapweed plant could consider the vast expanse before it and could think of all that had to be done, it would tend toward despair.

Knapweed colonies don’t take over entire prairies in a single season. Seeds may remain in the soil for fifteen years, awaiting the right conditions to germinate. Deep social changes don’t come about because someone pushes a political lever. They come about because individuals, one by one, change their hearts and minds. Changing hearts and minds may be slow work, but it’s the only work that ultimately matters. For teachers, it’s the real work.

And it is accomplished through faith in small things. Accepting any tiny toehold they are given, knapweed plants put their resources to work establishing their roots and making seeds to scatter freely wherever they can. They aren’t distracted from doing what they can by thinking about all that they can’t do.

Of course, teachers who talk about goodness and truth as if they matter will invite ridicule from educationists who think they have a technique that trumps personal relationship, from therapists who specialize in skills and are alarmed by talk of principles, by academics who fear stepping out of the refuge of objectivity, and from administrators who are stressed and annoyed by complexity.

That’s okay. We learn how much our love matters by hanging on in spite of what it sometimes costs. We can restore our courage by seeking out colleagues who share our hopes. If we can’t find them, we can seek the company of books and essays written by kindred spirits. Courage, like other virtues, can be learned and practiced. It amounts, finally, to admitting to ourselves and then to others what we honestly do love and what we honestly do care about.

Thankfully, we are sometimes blessed with moments that bolster our courage. Last week, I ran into April. She’s in her early twenties now, with a child of her own. She crossed the lobby of a busy theater to come see me. She had a charming smile and wanted to tell me what she’s doing. She’s taking classes part time at a junior college, she has a steady job, and her life has a fair amount of stability and order. It would be easy to find graduates who have accomplished more by the world’s usual way of reckoning, but a more important measure is that her life has more light, more grace, and more hope than her mother’s life.

I was touched that she wanted to tell me, that she believed I would care. Never once in my conversations with her at school did she smile or meet my overtures with anything but hostility. But at some level, she heard.

I choose to believe that my clumsy and inarticulate efforts to tell her that I knew of a better world and that I wanted her to live in it with me were a part of helping her. I now think that the worst mistake I made with her was that out of fear of seeming unprofessional, of being mocked, of being misunderstood and a dozen other similar weaknesses, I never told her that I loved her. Fortunately, young people often hear such things, even when we don’t say them.

The important thing is that we make them true.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The writing teacher
     Lunch at the Cannery

We live well on gifts from the past--our enormous infrastructure of systems and designs. Do we owe the people who prepared these gifts for us anything? It’s a question I ask students often, and one I keep trying to answer better for myself.

Some places in the West make it clear that we have been invaded. The mansions sprawling across the mountains at Big Sky, the gates of the Stock Farm in Hamilton. Though I can imagine people who build 23,000 square foot houses with Olympic swimming pools and shooting ranges that they will inhabit only occasionally, during a golf tournament maybe, I have no real way to check what I imagine against reality.

Already the West is filled with places that locals have lost. Sun River, Aspen, Whitefish. Visiting such places, I already feel myself becoming a part of the past, part of something that is being lost.

My home landscape becomes a backdrop for meals enjoyed by strangers. The place I live along Mission Creek on the Flathead Reservation was once a camping spot shared by tribal people now long gone. Their descendants are more like me than like them. In some cases (my grandchildren) their descendants are also my descendants. And in some ways, I feel closer to them than to these newcomers.

Do new arrivals owe those who were here before?

I wondered about that over a bowl of clam chowder at the Cannery Cafe in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. I had spent the day exploring the lower Columbia, made nostalgic by how much had been lost. I had intended to meet a friend for lunch, but a family emergency called her away, and being alone intensified my sense of transience, walking with a camera along the sandy beaches of a vast river.

The warehouses along the river, faced with brilliant signs bearing the names of large Japanese corporations, seemed small recompense for vanished salmon and vanished people, who once moved together in the rhythms of camping, fishing, and cooking.

The cafe itself was built on the site of one of the salmon canneries that once gave Astoria its reason for being. It was clean and gentrified, with good views of the harbor and seals swimming near the docks. Photos of the canneries, and the people who worked there, hung on the walls.

I had just come from the museum with my notebook and was enjoying a meal with the ocean and seals as a backdrop. It was very good. I was acutely aware that the people who had worked the cannery, or fished the river, didn’t have it nearly so good. Their lives were spent in struggle for food and shelter.

I knew enough of trudging to work in cold dawn, of hands rubbed raw by labor, and of a clock moving ever so slowly, measuring out my endurance against tasks that could never be finished, to at least imagine my kinship with those haggard-looking people staring out at me from tastefully framed sepia prints.

I also knew a little of how their struggle, the struggle of earlier generations, had freed me from a similar struggle. Food and shelter come easily for me because of the stored wealth of infrastructure and design that is my heritage. I live well on the gifts of the past. I have time for other struggles.

One thing I believe I owe all those people, the strange creatures staring at me from old photographs, is understanding. To the extent that I can feel what they felt, sense what they feared, and appreciate again what gave them joy, I think I can still help them. What we all want is to be recognized, and listened to, and empathized with. I can give them that.

Sometimes, listening to old-timers talk about moments far in the past, I sense how it is that moments of time do not ever really end. The people of the past are gone, but they are not gone away, just as the children we ourselves once were are gone but not gone away.

Time is haunted. We experience it as story, always just beginning.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Sowing clover
     Schools, communities, and social capital

February 2, 1968

In the darkness of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

- Wendell Berry

I found this small jewel of a poem by Wendell Berry after I returned from Vietnam and enrolled at the University of Montana, leaving behind work on a degree in physics I had begun before the service to instead study literature, planning to teach in small, Montana towns. It served as a touchstone that had something to do with my desire at that moment in time to work in out of the way places, relatively untroubled by big events.

With only a date for a title, the poem invites contemplation about a particular moment in time. Anyone who remembers 1968 will suspect the poem is about trouble. During 1968 the Tet Offensive changed America’s attitude toward the Vietnam War; an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, announced he would not seek re-election; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down in public; and 12,000 police and 15,000 army regulars and National Guardsmen bloodily suppressed rioters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Trouble was everywhere, and the country seemed to be coming apart.

The day, February 2, calls to mind Groundhog Day-suggesting that the title might be intended symbolically-suggesting an ambiguous turning point, a day when we can hope the worst is over. But maybe not.

The poem begins with confirmation that it is, indeed, about trouble, a gathering of dark forces: the barren, snowswept imagery of night and winter, the swinging anapestic rhythm accelerated almost at once with quick iambs, the somber tone sustained through the final words: “dead of winter.”

The second line switches to a faster, more urgent trochaic rhythm, hard and driving, ratcheting up the pace and creating anticipation as the imagery becomes more strident, winter turning into war, militant “r” sounds harshly echoing and amplifying “winter” with a slant-rhyme: “danger.”

In two brief lines, the poet establishes a dark and troubled world with danger on the rise. Having been drawn into a sense of accelerating trouble, both in the imagery and in the rhythm, the reader expects the rising crescendo to continue, leading to fireworks of some sort in the final line.

But it doesn’t happen. Instead, the poet shifts to an iambic rhythm, the most natural rhythm in English-the basic rhythm of everyday speech. Everything relaxes. Disaster is averted, normalcy returns, and images of winter and war fade into an image of an ordinary springtime routine. The ominous sounds of “winter” and “danger” are transformed subtly into the green freshness of “clover.” Spring has arrived. In some sense, the world is in order.

Given what went before, a world of winter and war, is this enough? Is the poet’s response to the troubled world strong enough? Is his action-to be out planting clover-an adequate answer to the desolate world in which he lives?

There is more, of course. It isn’t a fertile field that he plants, but a rocky hillside, perhaps ruined by the short-sighted, abusive practices that Berry so eloquently laments in other writings. And he plants clover, a nitrogen-fixer that restores fertility to exhausted land. He isn’t merely doing spring planting, he is healing a place where life is hard because of neglect and shoddy work.

In a troubled world, he adopts a local focus: repairing his little bit of the earth and planting for the future, keeping the basic work of peace going. He tends to his own affairs, making his place more abundant, more beautiful, more productive. Is it enough?

I suppose we make our own answers, but for me the answer is “yes.” One response sane and intelligent response to trouble is to abandon trouble’s strident tones and rhythms, to leave the urge for a quick resolution which, in being quick, is bound to be violent.

Sometimes, taking a longer view and changing the rhythm is precisely the best we can do.

Building Social Capital

The phrase “social capital” migrated from sociology into popular usage a few years ago, and it has spread rapidly, because it provides an explanation for why some towns and neighborhoods flourish, while similar ones with similar financial resources don’t. The idea is that people who have shared values and a rich web of informal communication routes are more able to get things done. A standard measurement of social capital has been the number of voluntary associations people belong to, including political parties, churches, bowling leagues, gun clubs, book discussion groups, and anything else that brings people together, so they can get to know one another.

Several long-term longitudinal studies show that when teenagers are involved in participatory projects such as the Heritage Project, they are twice as likely as uninvolved students to become civically engaged adults. Between 1945 and 1949, one teacher in Pennsylvania arranged for high school seniors to work with town officials researching the community. Thirty years later these students were four times as likely as nonparticipants to have joined voluntary associations. (1)

Psychology professor James Youniss suggests that young people who are involved in community projects incorporate the dispositions and skills of civic engagement deeply into their identities. They learn “to see society as a construction of human actors with political and moral goals rather than as a distant, performed object. . .Instead of thinking of society as determined by impersonal forces, youth recognized that their agency gives them responsibility for the way society is and for the well-being of its members.”

Adolescents sometimes get lost in the vast array of options our pluralistic society thrusts at them. Despite the popular view of adolescence as a time of troubled isolation, most young people forge their identities by joining others in respectable causes. When adults invite youth to join them in what amounts to the perpetual renewal of community, the effects can continue for decades, paying dividends not only to the individuals but also to the communities where they live.

Teachers who believe the work of the Project is important-posing fundamental questions about what it takes to build and sustain community; joining in shared inquiry; learning the techniques of intelligence to convert ignorance to knowledge; documenting, preserving, interpreting, and presenting our cultural and natural heritage-and who tell young people in a direct and clear way that it is important, may accelerate the building of social capital. We save our children in part by telling them what we are saving them for.

The Concept of Social Capital

The phrase “social capital” was first used by Glenn Loury in the 1970s to explain persisting inequality between groups. He pointed out that a lack of social connections and informal networks limited some groups’ ability to foster their own development. Based on the ideas of financial capital (money) and human capital (education), social capital refers to the relationships, shared values, and social trust that help people act together for their mutual benefit. The concept has drawn considerable attention because it amended narrowly constructed economic models which could not account for all of what happened. Without a modicum of social capital, even routine business becomes excruciatingly difficult, and a growing body of research identifies “social capital” as a key to making communities work. It may be a key to making democracy itself work.

In United States towns and cities in the 1830s, the energy of local democracy was the most remarkable feature of the young country to visiting French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” he observed, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types-religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Since the early 1990s sociologists have been heeding Toqueville’s call to pay attention to the web of associations that undergird strong communities. People who live in dense networks of social interaction, who have experience with each other, and have developed informal networks of communication, develop what might be thought of as a “collective intelligence” that helps them build better schools, foster quicker economic development, and maintain lower crime rates. It makes getting from “I” to “we” easier and faster.

A boy in Red Lodge who meets a retired rancher while doing an oral history project, then returns during hunting season to look for mule deer, is engaging in one of the thousands of small associations that make larger things more likely. Through bowling leagues, card parties, and quilting bees, people get to know one another, construct shared norms through informal conversations, and lay the groundwork for further development that may occur.

Of course, not all associations lead to better communities. Some actually destroy social capital by increasing fear and distrust: teen gangs, militia movements, and partisan politics. Much of the research about social capital focuses on its decline, which most sociologists who have studied the matter agree has been sudden and sharp over the past three decades. In a 1996 survey conducted by Gallup and the University of Virginia, eight out of ten people agreed that the nation is run by a network of special interests, public officials, and the media, and that elected officials don’t care what “people like me” think. (2) Feelings of powerlessness more than a lack of concern may account for much of the decline in social capital.

Schools and Social Capital

What can be done? Not much, as long as the focus stays at the national level. But turning our attention to the local places we live reveals endless chances to move things forward. Antidotes to feelings of powerlessness can best be developed at the local level, and, especially in rural areas, schools can play a lead role.

For one thing, schools can incorporate local studies units at all grade levels, teaching again and again the contributions regular citizens have made to the quality of life. Even more important, they can involve adolescents in projects similar to the Heritage Project, where students take part in the work of community, learning skills and attitudes that are likely to affect them and their towns for decades.

The direct benefits to young people of doing this are clear and compelling. Schools have been deluged with programs to meet the “needs” of students, but, as Paul Theobald, Dean of Education at Wayne State College, points out, “to appreciably attend to the ‘needs’ of students, schools must contribute to the re-creation of communities.” (3) Many programs are now trying to re-create a connectedness that was lost as community was neglected. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that the presence of any one of several indicators of social capital-such as church affiliation or neighborhood support-increased an “at risk” child’s chances of doing well by 29%. (4) Some research indicates that social capital may be most important for families that lack money or education.

And the benefits to communities themselves are just as compelling. Though the phrase “social capital” is fairly new, the basic understanding behind it is not. It was the basis of the Montana Study in the 1940s, when communities came together to conduct 10-week shared inquiries into their history, their circumstances, and their future possibilities. These groups avoided attempts at solving any problems during the study, trusting that if they got to know one another and practiced educated ways of working together, solutions would come later.

Since the Montana Study, much work has been done at understanding the way social capital develops. For many rural communities, the school provides the best hope for the community’s future. The fate of schools and their communities is deeply linked, and with the simple step of “teachers and school administrators viewing community well-being as one of their professional obligations,” (5) everything changes. “The more students understand their community and its environs-its social structure, its economy, its history, its music, its ecology-the more they become invested in that community. Such investment increases the likelihood that they will find ways to either stay in or return to the community.”

The significance of this, Theobald says, is “not just that one small place is saved, but that the character of our national culture is transformed in the process. Indeed, the promise of rural educational renewal is that it can start us all on the road to a more sustainable future.” At the same time, “providing students with the opportunity to engage in real learning for the purpose of building community does, in fact, represent systemic change-change that goes far beyond national goals or centrally prescribed curriculum standards. Integrating schooling with the day-to-day life of the community, providing students with an opportunity to be a part of society now rather than at some time in the distant future, and involving students in the struggle to solve complex issues that are important to their community not only provides more powerful learning, but it goes far toward reducing the growing alienation among our young people.”

Communities with numerous and effective internal communication paths don’t just happen. They are intentionally created, and they normally develop in stages. (6) From the first stage-the ordinary and unavoidable interactions of citizens-people form organizations, such as museum boards, PTAs, mentoring programs, and the like. The creation of formal organizations is the second stage, and through these organizations people develop a civic infrastructure, which is the third stage.

The civic infrastructure includes the formal and informal processes that bring neighbors together to work on shared problems, create webs of relationships, and build collective resources that contribute to cultural capital-the experiences, understandings, skills, relationships, and abilities of community members. Social interaction by itself needn’t build either social or cultural capital-it can diminish both, as when conflict sours relations and turns people off to public life, so it’s important for leaders to be deliberate about building such a civic infrastructure.

This includes keeping in mind, constantly, that building social capital is different than solving problems. Damaging a relationship to gain a short-term advantage may be as foolish as selling the seed corn. This is especially true in small towns, where the same people figure again and again, year after year. Using the rational problem solving approach, agencies typically do a “needs assessment” then provide some mix of resources to “solve the problem” without really engaging ordinary people in talking about their mutual interests and priorities, or inviting them to work as partners, or developing their capacity to solve their own problems. Quite often programs to solve problems interfere with the development of social capital. Grant requirements, expert jargon, expectations that problems “belong” to specialized agencies rather than to the community, and turf issues can stifle hope of a common sense conversation, in which ordinary people discuss seriously what they can do to meet local challenges.

The final stage is the development of a civic culture--the habits, dispositions, and norms that characterize a community. Such a culture is the medium within which members converse, developing a vision of the community’s future in which they have a hand in shaping their own destiny. The insight that drove the Montana Study’s success was that democracy needs to be practiced at the local level.

The Future of School and Community: Incorporating “21st Century Skills” into authentic research projects

In today’s world, any community vision that is sustainable is likely to include provisions for lifelong learning of both a formal and an informal nature, for bringing the next generation into the conversation, and for seeing and developing connections between the locality and the larger world. In other words, it will be to some extent a vision about education.

One vision of the school of the not-so-distant future hearkens back to John Dewey’s vision for an ideal school early in this century. In Dewey’s vision, the school was organized around two large central rooms: the library and the museum. We have realized the first part of his vision, and few schools today try to operate without a library of some sort. We are just beginning to realize the second part, as more and more educators see that gathering, interpreting, and presenting history and science through local conditions helps students reach deeper understanding of what they are learning. Their learning is situated in an actual world, rather than being presented as a series of decontextualized abstractions.

Exhibit design, for example, is naturally interdisciplinary. Designers must research the resources they have available, focus on the story they want to tell by evaluating what is important and significant, select among many details those that are most telling, consider the audience and how an experience can be created and an understanding communicated using all the tools of visual and literary arts, and in doing these things they are learning how to work in teams, how to organize knowledge, how to complete large-scale projects, and how to communicate. Such work is naturally inviting, providing ample opportunities for parents, community organizations, and experts to get involved.

Such insights have led some communities to go so far as to house their museums and schools in the same building, and others to create museum-based magnet schools. These moves help schools overcome the perennial curse of classrooms: tasks that are not real work connected to the real world. It is this disconnect that has led to the word “academic” being used so often as a synonym for “impractical.”

As such work becomes more central to a town or neighborhood, education becomes more lively at the same time social capital accrues. This is the vision museum educator Harold Skramstad suggests for the school of the 21st century: “It is an educational environment in which children come together to learn about real subject-matter content and to develop critical thinking skills. They work with the real things and ideas of science, art, and the humanities. They work in a setting of participatory learning, led and mentored by adults who are themselves skilled practitioners of the particular craft or discipline the children are learning. The work is rigorous, involving projects that require team-based inquiry and demanding a variety of complementary learning skills. The rewards come in the form of recognition of the individual intellectual and emotional strengths of the learners as well as recognition of the strength of the working teams. All of the activities undertaken require basic skills in thoughtful and critical reading, analytical thinking, problem-solving, clear writing, and computer understanding. The measurement of learning comes in a variety of forms, including standardized tests, teacher assessment, and student self-assessment.” (7)

Schools today wrestle with a host of problems. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has advised that when a problem seems impossible to solve, one strategy is to take off our blinders and deal with larger issues. It may be insoluble because it is larger than we think. We may be too focused on symptoms to see the scale of the problem, as if a physician tried to treat the lack of vigor caused by malnutrition by prescribing a weightlifting regime. “Community” has become something of a buzzword in education because it becomes increasingly clear that many of the problems that preoccupy schools-drug abuse, disorder, teen pregnancy, gang membership-are symptoms of a larger malady: towns and neighborhoods that leave people feeling disconnected and unsupported. We might reap real benefits if some of the resources devoted to the host of programs that has grown up around each problem were devoted instead to increasing our social capital.

The most serious problems we face as a people--the environment, poverty, racism, crime-cannot be solved from the top down. They have deep, interrelated and pervasive causes and can be solved only through changes in the behavior of millions of people. Such changes are unlikely until people begin to feel their agency, the capacity to exert power, which is implicit in the idea of social capital: through interactions with others, we can realize our interests and our values.

Carl Jung pointed out that “All of the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. . .They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This ‘outgrowing’ proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.” (8)

Listening to students who’ve done local studies projects, I feel confident they are both making connections and seeing those connections as important. Emma Garman from Townsend said, “I now believe in the importance of recording personal stories and experiences so these events may be available for future generations.” Betsy Lee from Corvallis noted that through examining the past and listening to elders, “We learn how to live our lives to make a difference, and that’s what really counts.” Tyanna Wiediger, also from Corvallis, noted that her original research in her community “really made me think about my own community and how I can help it and learn about it.”

In Bigfork nearly every teacher contributed in some way as high school juniors spent a year completing a mulitmedia history of the community at the request of the Chamber of Commerce, and the result of this academic work brought 350 people out to the local theater to learn more about themselves.

Students in Townsend published a book, “Women in History” which involved them in dozens of interviews with community residents, and resulted in a deeper understanding of the contributions ordinary people had made to the quality of life there.

In Harlowton, students writing hundred-year histories of three ranching families brought the entire community together to think about what had been accomplished in the past and what lessons might be applied to their prospects for the future.

In Ronan, the gymnasium was transformed into a large museum with dozens of exhibits, many focusing on local research, created by students in nearly all classes. In Eureka, students participated in a community reading series at a local bookstore, reading local history back to people from town. In Browning, young people learned about the past directly from elders who have struggled all their lives with questions about communal continuity and change.

In Simms, twenty-two mentors from the community worked directly with students on a comprehensive history of the high school, going back to 1918. This involved countless interviews and conversations as well as hours of collaboration to build a model of the first school, compile a book of photo-essays, and numerous other projects. The amount and quality of work that was done would have been simply impossible without community members helping.

Schools in Libby, Roundup, Chester, Corvallis, Townsend, Harlowton, and Dillon are working more and more closely with museums on joint projects. All are engaging students in collaborative learning projects that embed strong academic work in a context of community service.

Teachers in such places are becoming true community leaders, not by taking over the podium but by creating invitations to a broad array of community organizations and members to help in the education of the community’s children. Everyone-students, teachers, parents-report that although quite a lot of work is involved, it is fun and exciting.

We have gotten so accustomed to “solving problems” by administering unpleasant prescriptions that we too readily assume that doing the right thing has to be hard and unpleasant. But as with sowing clover in the spring, the fact that it’s fun and rewarding doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

Learning and developing social capital are not onerous tasks. They partake of the joy of life, which may be the best antidote to trouble we are likely to find.


1. Younnis, James; Jeffrey A. McLellan; Miranda Yates (1997). “What we know about engendering civic identity,” American Behavioral Scientist, v40 n5 p. 620-672.

2. Lappe, Francis Moor and Paul Martin Du Bois (1997). “Building social capital without looking backward,” National Civic Review v86 n2 p.. 119-129.

3. Theobald, Paul; Paul Nachtigal (1995). “Culture, community, and the promise of rural education,” Phi Delta Kappan v77 n2 p. 132-136. (Special Section on Rural Schools)

4. Runyan, Desmond, et al. (1998). “Children who prosper in unfavorable environments: the relationship to social capital,” Pediatrics, v101 n1 p. 12-19.

5. Theobald, Paul; Jim Curtiss (2000). “Communities as Curricula,” Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, v15 i1 p106.

6. Potapchuk, William R.; Jarle P. Crocker; William H. Schechter, Jr. (1997). “Building community with social capital: chits and chums or chats with change,” National Civic Review v86 n2 p. 129-140.

7. Skramstad, Harold (1999). “An Agenda for American Museums in the Twenty-First Century,” Daedalus v128 i3 p109.

8. Jung, Carl G. “Commentary on ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower,’”The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 13 (Princeton University Press, 1969.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The writing teacher
     Exploring home

Penny asked to see the full text of an excerpt of student writing I posted on a different thread.

I’ve pasted below the full text of Rachel Reckin’s essay (with her permission) about her hometown during the Great Depression. It’s one of hundreds of such essays researched and written by high school scholars in Montana as part of the Montana Heritage Project. The how and why of research-based nonfiction was the subject of my most recent book.

I have lots of reasons for thinking such writing should form a central part of every student’s high school education. Some of my reasons have to do with adolescent psychology, and the way they are forming identity by, for the first time, thinking autobiographically, and that one of their greatest needs is to be embedded in narrative environments full of stories told by elders of their culture that answer the basic questions: Who should I be? What should I want?

I think we need to encourage and support the engagement of students in the particular moral communities of which they are part, whether those are Lutheran, Blackfeet or Jewish. All traditional communities use stories to teach character. The important stories are those when characters act in service to realities beyond themselves–to help a friend, to care for a family member, to fulfill a duty to an institution with a noble mission or to be true to a moral vision. We need to send kids out in ways that make it likely they will hear such stories from elders in their own communities.

Part of it has to do with how we grow as writers. The key to effective writing and rhetoric is not primarily “voice.” It is primarily knowledge--mastery of a body of knowledge. Teaching writing divorced from the skills of finding things out is, I think, to mislead young people as to what writing is really about and why it matters.

Part of it has to do with restoring schools to their rightful place as the central institution of our communities. We need our neighborhoods and towns to be much more education-centered. The way to get there is to make our schools more community-centered. If the need of young people for an identity, found in the stories every community knows and can tell itself, does not bring a place together in a sense of shared work, then nothing will.

There’s more, but you probably get my drift.

Rachel’s task was to respond to the current troubles her town faces (it’s now a superfund site) by exploring how that town had responded to a previous crisis: The Great Depression. Her personal passion is for music, so she set about seeing what role music played in the life of Libby during the Depression. Her primary research method was poring through old newspapers at the museum, following by digging through the business records and correspondence of a long defunct lumber mill. She augmented this with interviews with descendants of characters she discovered in the past, and with old people in town, who had some knowledge of that past.

Songs of Hope: Music in Libby, Montana, During the Great Depression
By Rachel Reckin

Overture: An instrumental composition intended especially as an introduction

When griping grief the heart doth wound,
and doleful dumps the mind oppresses,
then music, with her silver sound,
with speedy help doth lend redress.

When William Shakespeare penned these words in the sixteenth century, he had no idea that, nearly three centuries later, they would aptly apply to the experience of a tiny community on the other side of the world. Welcome to Libby, Montana, a town that found hope and life in the unlikeliest of people during a time when the future seemed bleak.

The late eighteenth century in America was known as the “Gilded Age,” a time ruled by enormous corporations and the fabulously wealthy. Later came the “Roaring Twenties"– days of flappers and bootlegging, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Charleston. In October of 1929, however, the frenzy stopped. The stock market plummeted. Banks failed. By 1932, one worker out of every four was jobless. Houses and farms were abandoned in the dustbowl of the Midwest. The Great Depression settled over the American landscape, and not a corner of the nation was safe.

Cantabile: In a smooth, lyrical, flowing style

Picture it: a community whose economic livelihood rests almost exclusively on a single business, a business that is no longer making profits and is forced to close. Hundreds of workers suddenly find themselves unemployed and other businesses begin to suffer in the tightened economy. People move away to find work and eventually the once thriving community resembles a ghost town.

Such stories unfolded many places in America during the tight days of the 1930s. Yet in Libby, Montana, there was a different story. The business didn’t close. Libby was blessed with businessmen who would refuse to leave their workers out in the cold. Businessmen willing to dip into their own pockets to keep the paychecks coming. And businessmen who would make a lasting gift to their community. Meet the Neils family.

In January 1919, George Neils arrived in Libby to oversee the mill his family had recently acquired: a sawmill that had been built by the Dawson Lumber Company in 1906. Libby had grown dramatically since the opening of the Dawson mill, but it wasn’t until the J. Neils Lumber Company (named for George’s father Julius, the president of the company) took control that it became an integral part of the landscape. In Small Town Renaissance, a book on the dynamics of rural Montana in the 1940s, the chapter on Libby says, Ӆit’s a safe bet that anybody you meet [in Libby] first either has worked or still does work for the J. Neils Lumber Company.Ŕ

Libby wasn’t the only town in Lincoln County with a sawmill. Four nearby communities each had their own booming facility as well. Yet even before the stock market crash of 1929, the growth of those towns had stalled. By the mid ‘twenties each of the other mills had been abandoned, and Libby folks were becoming a bit worried about the fate of their own jobs.

But the whistle kept on blowing at the Neils mill, and as the town got to know the family behind the corporation, their fears eased. “It was so different from so many of the lumber towns where the company family sat on the hill and looked down their noses at the rest of the people,” said longtime Libby librarian Inez Herrig. “They were cultured in music and literature and they were very devoted in their faith. They were family people…and our town is much better because of their influence over the years.”

Julius Neils’ early education was hardly based in the lumber business. He was, in fact, training to become a pastor in the Lutheran church before he emigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of seventeen. Part of his training included learning to play the organ. The years of instruction inspired a love of music in Julius that he passed on to all thirteen of his children. “Everyone in that family was musical,” said George’s son Kenneth. “They all had to take music lessons and all of them went to Concordia College, which is known for its musical programs.” Julia Neils remembered practicing on the family piano with one of her younger brothers lying in a baby buggy nearby. Martha Neils’ son Max heard his mother sing so often that he knew all of her favorite songs by age two. Walter Neils owned a beautiful grand piano. And George Neils played the organ and piano for half a century and was the organist at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Libby for many years. He hadn’t been in town a year before his hands were itching for an instrument.

“Since business seems to be going quite good,” George wrote to his father on November 22, 1919, “I would like to buy a piano so that I won’t forget my music entirely. A good Grand, such as I would like to have, would cost $1500 and since I haven’t the cash I will have to borrow. Can you let me have that amount?” He was willing to pay fifteen hundred dollars for a piano when his family had just invested in a new business whose future was uncertain. It’s quite clear what George’s priorities were; the question was whether his father’s were the same.

In his next letter, George wrote, “I have written to the firm in Spokane from which Walter bought his piano and if they have some good pianos in stock, I will probably make a trip to Spokane and if I purchase one, I will ask you for the money.” A letter penned just over a week later reads, “I bought the Duo Art Steinway anyhow and hope you can send me the $2500 asked for in my previous letter.” Julius Neils’ response, dated December 8, 1919, is a brief yet appropriate fatherly reply to the actions of his young son. “Dear Geo:” he writes. “Your letter of the 4th inst. is received. I herewith send you a check for $2500. I am sorry that you bought that piano.”

George’s kids, however, were not sorry. The piano that he purchased could function both as a regular and as a self-playing piano, which was a never-ending source of delight. “I remember sitting on the bench all afternoon, just listening to it,” Kenneth recalled. “It was like all of the great piano players of the world were right there in our living room, playing on our piano.”

George didn’t stop with an instrument for his own family, though. About twenty years later, plans he had been working on for years culminated in the purchase of a pipe organ for St. John’s Lutheran Church. And this was not just any organ but one he had personally designed and tested so that it would fit the church as well as possible.

Many years later, when doctors told him that his shoulder would have to be pinned into a single position for the rest of his days, George Neils sat down at the doctor’s table and positioned his arm as if he were playing the organ. “That’s the way he wanted it,” said Kenneth, “for the rest of his life.”

Maestoso: In a majestic and stately manner

“Carl Eppert, internationally known composer, and his wife, will arrive in Libby next week to spend the summer,” the June 16, 1938 issue of the Western News reported. “The main purpose of the composer’s visit is to write a symphony based on the life cycle of a tree. During the greater part of the summer Eppert, accompanied by his wife, will occupy a cabin in this vicinity.”

Carl Ellis Eppert was born on November 5, 1882, in Carbon, Indiana, the son of Ida Stephenson and William E. Eppert. As a young man, Eppert studied harmony and piano at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. By the time he was twenty-four, his musical genius had taken him to Europe where he studied with famous composer/director Hugo Kaun in Berlin until the beginning of World War One. With his musical senses sharpened, he returned to America to lead the Seattle Grand Opera Company through its recovery from a devastating opera house fire. During the ‘twenties he served as dean of theoretical branches at the Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin, Dean of the Milwaukee Musical Institute, and he founded the Milwaukee Civic Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these achievements, by the time his train pulled up to Libby’s depot on June 21, 1938, Eppert was an award-winning composer. During his lifetime he wrote over sixteen pieces of music, including orchestral works, sonatas, tone poems, operas, quartets, symphonic works for band, and compositions for chorus as well. So how on earth did such a celebrated musician end up writing a symphony in Libby, Montana?

According to an article published in the Western News on June 23, 1938, “The general theme [of forests] was suggested by a friend, W. W. Woodbridge of Seattle, who is general manager of the Red Cedar Lumber Bureau. [Eppert] had planned upon writing his music in the Seattle district but due to the influence of his friend, Mr. Louis De Voignes, who is now teaching music here for the summer, he was persuaded to use the vast and beautiful forest areas of Lincoln County [for inspiration].”

The actual location of Eppert’s cabin was not disclosed to the public, as he wished to work in solitude and silence. Apparently all of that peace and quiet paid off, because Eppert’s Symphony No. 4 in F Major, titled Timber, received a special award from the Juilliard Foundation later that year.

The finished score of the orchestral work contains three movements, each prefaced with composer’s notes about the inspiration behind them. The first movement, Eppert said, tells of the origins of the trees, the “birth and growth of the forest.” The second section is a slower movement written to communicate “the tranquility and peacefulness of the forest before the advent of man.” The third and final movement includes “the entering of man to cut the trees, their death, and their glorification, since after all, ‘Timber’ is a great and lasting necessity of man.”

In 1939, Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Karl A. Klehm added his voice to those of several groups who were lobbying to have the symphony played on Montana Day at the New York World’s Fair. “This would not only be a wonderful boost for Montana itself,” wrote Klehm, “but also a dignified and lovely tribute…to trees.” A dignified and lovely tribute, indeed.

Spiritoso: An animated, lively approach

In 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt received the nomination for the Democratic presidential ticket, he made this statement: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Part of the new deal Roosevelt promised was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization that put unemployed young men to work revitalizing natural resources. “I have proposed to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work,” Roosevelt said just a few days after taking office. “ [It will confine] itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects.” An enrollee from Ohio named Edgar Diller remembered his excitement at hearing of the program and the money he could make: “Back where I came from, I worked for two weeks on a hog farm for five dollars a week. Then I went home and signed up for the CCC…The pay was thirty dollars a month for the regular men; as assistant leader, thirty-six dollars; a leader, forty-five dollars. That was pretty darn good then.”

The Corps brought 15,178 youths from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and many other states into Montana and employed another 25,690 Montanans as well. The average enlistee was nineteen years old and had no more than an eighth grade education. About 3,600 of these boys were stationed in Lincoln County, and nearly 1,000 of the Lincoln County enrollees were African Americans fresh from the Bronx and the Harlem Renaissance. Imagine the shock of those eastern boys, both black and white, when they stepped off the train in Libby. “We had no idea where we were going and they set us down in the middle of two mountains,” CCC alumnus Charles Krause remembered. Camp cook and Ohio farm boy Harold Shrewsberry described his first impression: “I got up the next morning [after arriving in the middle of the night], went out and looked at the river and it was beautiful. But something was wrong—it was flowing the wrong way.” Some of the enrollees said that they had never set foot on actual earth before, only concrete.

“They were real comical,” recalled local enrollee Warren Brown of the New York boys. “You would tell ‘em to holler ‘timber’ if they were going to cut down a tree and they were hollering ‘timber’ for any darn thing. They’d saw all the way around a tree and holler ‘timber;’ you didn’t know where it was going to fall.” But silliness was definitely taking second place to work, according to the Sept. 27, 1934 issue of Libby’s Western News. “Refutation of the claim of a Missoula, Montana paper that negro CCC camps are inclined to laugh and sing but seldom to work is provided in the work record compiled by Company 1286, Camp F-44, Pipe Creek, Libby, Montana.” The paper then goes on to a list of work the camp had already completed, saying, “In addition to fire duties, the men have constructed 18 miles of road, cleared 24 miles of trail, maintained 23 miles of telephone line and constructed 10.7 miles of line. Three lookout towers and cabins have already been built, 14.4 miles of truck trail constructed, 35.5 miles of truck trail maintained and a forty acre airport built in its entirety.” Whatever camp the Missoula paper was describing didn’t seem to be populated with the kind of boys that Captain Howard L. Nash had working for him in Libby’s Company 1286.

Captain Nash’s camp was not without the occasional problem, however. Most of the CCC men came from rough, big city backgrounds and were a bit touchier than the folks of Libby were used to. “You never knew what some of those guys were going to do up there,” said Warren Brown. “All of the army fellows carried .45-caliber pistols. They were ready to call out the riot squad from Fort Wright, Washington to stop one uproar in the mess hall.” For the most part, though, the men of the camp were harmless enough—especially once the troublemakers were ferreted out and shipped home.

When transported out of their element, people have always tried to keep the basics of the culture that they knew a part of their lives. Irish immigrants to America brought their jigs and reels and soda bread. Germans came with sauerkraut and the polka. Scandinavians brought lutefisk and bunads and traditional dances. Food, clothing, music, all become integral pieces of a daily routine that can make even the direst unknown familiar. In a CCC camp, though, army-prepared meals and uniforms limited the culture that enrollees could bring with them. Music, however, was theirs, and those black boys of Harlem had come fully prepared to give the straight-laced people of Libby a little lesson in jazz.

“Considerable popularity has come to the colored vocal quartet of the camp during the past few weeks,” stated the Western News in its September 27, 1934 edition. “The four boys, from New York and New Jersey, first started singing spirituals together in the camp kitchen. Their popularity spread until they finally performed before Governor Ross of Idaho who shook hands with them all…. Several Chambers of Commerce in Montana have arranged for performances by the four men and efforts have been made to have them appear in Spokane for possible radio broadcasts and personal appearances.” Led by baritone Emmett Kato, this quartet of boys from camp F-44 became a bridge between the camp and the community, a bridge that would prove to be well forged. “We had a black quartet [in camp] that was really good,” remembered Warren Brown. “Sang spirituals—and they sang in churches in town.”

They weren’t the only ones making music up on Pipe Creek, though. A CCC enlistee from another camp recalled bringing a different set of musicians to a special gig. “On the 4th of July in ’34,” he said, “I drove up to the Pipe Creek camp and picked up four of the band members from the CCC camp. I took them in my Model T to the Linger Longer, a dance hall on Savage Lake. It was quite a trip. Those Model T’s had to back up the hills in those days to work. Those black boys did not like to ride backwards up the hills in my car and insisted on walking up the hills instead. They sure knew how to play some great jazz music.”

CCC boy Jerry Howard used to attend those dances. “Saturday nights we’d load up in an army truck and head for Linger Longer Beach,” he reminisced. “They had a dance floor that extended over the lake.… The CCC fellas from the other camps came also. Families came from Troy and Libby.” And so it was that a community whose members had been skeptical of those rough and tumble boys had now welcomed their talents and a bit of the Harlem Renaissance into their white Montana world.

Finale: The conclusion of a musical composition

When griping grief the heart doth wound,
and doleful dumps the mind oppresses,
then music, with her silver sound,
with speedy help doth lend redress.

The words of William Shakespeare proved to be true in Depression-era Libby, Montana.

During the days when a shadow of dust and fear and doubt clouded the nation’s future, a small glimmer of light shone out over Lincoln County. And that light still shines today. In the sanctuary of St. John’s Lutheran Church, a beautiful organ awaits a ready hand to bring to life all of the majesty and beauty and love that George Neils once gave it. With the spirit of the forest inscribed upon its pages, Carl Eppert’s symphony lies in the archives of Libby’s Heritage Museum, awaiting the moment when new musicians again perform this testament to the spirit of the community in which it was composed. And carved into an aspen tree near the site of the CCC camp F-44, Emmett Kato’s initials await the determined searcher.

“The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other is by music,” John Edwards wrote. After all, what could a lumber mill family, a world famous composer, and a bunch of rowdy black boys from Harlem possibly have in common? Music, and a little town to which they lent the light and the joy and the silver sound of their gifts in a time when the darkness of the Depression seemed impenetrable.

Today, Libby again finds itself in dire straits. The mill that supported the economy for so long has closed. The mines are gone. Asbestos has taken its toll. And yet an attentive driver passing by the newly-built performing arts center on a Saturday night may hear the sounds of an Irish jig or an old show tune drifting out on the clear evening air—a lucid melody telling the world that the light hasn’t gone out. Music holds the essence of hope, and in both music and hope, Libby, Montana has never been lacking.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Writing for the ages
     Through stories we transcend time

I’m working with my students right now on their ”essays of place”--which is the last writing assignment of the year.

Part of what I tell them is that I am not their audience I want them to think about. I want them to write a piece of family literature that their children will read--something that their family will pass on--something that people will still be reading 100 years from now. A lot of them take that seriously.

In writing about places that are important to them, they write about who they are, really.

Who are you, really? That’s a question writing teachers should pose, in dozens of ways, to every young person. The answer often depends on who is listening, or who they imagine is listening, or who they want to listen. Speech is social. Who is a teenager living in Terry, Montana, or Sutherlin, Oregon? Who will hear him? Who will care what she says?

Teenagers who have been introduced to family history get excited to find a page or two written by their great-grandparents. Such students respond well to the idea that the most attentive audience for much of what they are writing may well be their own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reminding them of that is a way of slowing things down. I’ve just looked at several blogs where the posters seemed frantic, wild for something to link and comment upon. They reminded me of gamblers in Reno dropping quarters in a dayless glitter of hope for the jackpot that hovers forever just out of reach. Slowing things down strikes me as quite wonderful.

I like the thought of high school kids imagining their own grandchildren reading their words fifty or more years down the road. It’s better than their imagining that their writing is best rewarded by the applause of strangers. I would rather they saw themselves giving themselves a form, sentence by sentence--a form that will not pass away and that others will consider through the ages.

The more I learn of memory--my own and that of my people--the less I believe that what finds its way into words, either said or thought, is lost.

Though we ourselves are not merely words, we are partly words--a great part, and a part that persists. This is not something we can readily teach a sixteen-year-old. One way, I’ve found, is to lead young people into diaries or journals written by people a hundred or a thousand years ago. Preferably local people, not yet fictionalized by historians. Best of all, the works of their own ancestors, which tend to more plentiful than you might imagine.

What sort of characters were they? What were they trying to do? What was the setting of their lives--what did the world look and smell and sound like? We begin to understand they emerged to handle trouble, and that none of it was quite inevitable. There was in all of it a trace of will. It was made, and the main part of the making was imagining. Character drove the plot--evoking the events that triggered the actions, the consequences, and the other characters who responded. Always, desire was the invisible fire rippling like God’s breath through forests and canyons of time.

As they understand how those people of the past were authors of themselves, and that the theme of their lives was the plot, reflected upon, they better understand themselves the same way. They begin to see how it will be that people of the future will read our lives, tracing us as characters related to events, texts, ideas, and other characters. Already one of the primary personal uses of the internet is family history research, and archivists at such institutions as the National Archives and the Library of Congress report that their collections are used heavily by genealogists. Nothing in the trend lines suggests that this interest in recovering and understanding ancestors is going to abate.

What we can do today with famous people, others will be able to do tomorrow with not so famous people, such as that fifteen-year-old girl in the third row, who sent five emails this morning and visited a chat room last week. She is leaving records that, combined with the records of her time, will make possible a reading experience so broad and deep that most novels seem flat and dull by comparison.

If you want a sense of what I mean, do this: take a well-known person from the past, such as Theodore Roosevelt, and take a period of time: say, 1910. Try to figure out what Roosevelt did during that time, and why.

Try to figure out what ideas he would have been encountering, what people he would have been hearing about, what the news was, what he would have been anticipating and what he would have been worried about. Try to figure out his life and times. You will quickly have many thousands more leads than you can follow, so follow the ones that seem most intriguing or most likely to lead to new insight. Learn as much as you feel you need to know about names you come across, ranging from Luther Burbank to Emma Goldman to Gifford Pinchot.

Spend considerable time with photographs and primary documents. Slow down. Read academic papers and personal narratives. Continue reading for 6 months with the intent to create some final product based on your researches, maybe a website focused on the life of Teddie Roosevelt in 1910. This last condition--the motive of teaching--gives your reading form.

If you conduct this little experiment, I predict a few things: you will have a reading experience as profound and engaging as any you’ve had in print media, you will deepen your understanding of the present by deepening your understanding of how it came to be, and you will wish young people in school were doing something similar.

When we invite young people into such experiences, they are grateful, though they often resist at first. As a place to start, we can ask them to do the important work of writing about the lives of their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. These nearby people are a point of entry into the past and its enchantment. In gathering and forming their stories, young people do important work, but they also combine their energy and their time with the seasoning and insights of their elders. With such partners, they find the right things to say. Family elders are, most of the time, an excellent audience for young people trying to decide who to be.

It’s good to see high school students struggle with understanding what it means to be a character immersed in time. It’s good to see them embark on expeditions into the past-- to search for those significant stories of an ancestor making a hard decision, coming to a new insight, holding on to a dream or feeling a dream slip out of reach.

It’s good for them to slip away from the hurly burly of the daily show to stand in holy places, where things change more slowly than seasons, if they change at all. It’s good for them to discern character that endures through decades like the gray-black trunks of cottonwoods along a winter creek.

It matters that they experience how it is that moments can arc across decades, so that a sister dying on the living room couch sixty years ago in a story told by an eighty-year-old friend is as present as the smell of cedar permeating a small collection of unforgotten and precious things.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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