The writing teacher: speech to my students
   Delivered at the Montana Heritage Project's Youth Heritage Festival


You think that it doesn’t much matter what you think. After all, you’re just one small person in a vast and noisy world that’s ruled by transnational corporate empires that even vast government bureaucracies obey. Your little world of private desires and hidden fears doesn’t matter. Nobody notices and nobody cares.

But you are wrong. What you think matters profoundly.

One way you can tell how much it matters what you think is to observe the money and ingenuity powerful groups use to influence what you think. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you are surrounded and bombarded with messages, often purchased at enormous expense and designed with spectacular artistry. Television, movies, music, and the internet, not to mention textbooks, teachers, and speakers such as myself send messages your way in a steady stream.

If it didn’t matter what you thought, then the princes of the earth would just ignore you. But they don’t. They not only yell and whisper at you, they also study you intently. They listen. They make strategic plans based on what you want. In more and more ways, the vast interconnected systems of modern society study what you think, shaping and reshaping themselves based on what they can figure out about the secrets of your heart.

They do this in many ways, some obvious and others quite subtle. Polls are obvious. More subtle may be that Best Buy Reward Zone card or that Barnes & Nobles Readers Advantage card that allows merchants to monitor what you buy, and how often, and in what quantities. You are being studied. When you enter a store, where do you go first, where do you linger longest, and what do you ultimately buy? Stores are rearranged, some sections growing and others dwindling away, based partly on what you ignore and what you like. The world changes by tracing the flow of your pennies.

Something similar happens each time you get on the Internet. Out of millions of choices available, what do you choose? Where do you go? What do you look at? For how long? Sites that get traffic grow and are imitated. Sites that attract no audience wither and die. What you pay attention to becomes more common. It comes closer. But what you ignore weakens and fades. It disappears. Each mouse click changes the world.

Those vast corporate empires are watching you, listening to you, testing everything. For the most part, they don’t care whether you want broccoli or Big Macs, Plato or porn. If you want it, they will get it for you. It’s become a simple fact of the modern world that our destiny now depends on what ordinary people want. Not on what they say they want so much as what they show they really do want by what they repeatedly look at, by what they buy, by what they choose to watch and hear and read.

And it isn’t just the business world. Government officials, too are monitoring their constant polling and their email inboxes, desperate to keep power by doing what ordinary people want them to do. As a free citizen of the most powerful nation in the world, what you think matters profoundly.

Ancient philosophers understood that every human thought changes the world just a bit. But in the modern world, the linkage between our thoughts and the way the world develops becomes more apparent. Today, if public opinion wants a president impeached, the political machine will find a way to make it happen, but if public opinion does not want the president impeached, then his enemies are helpless. If public opinion wants bombs to fall on Iran, the bombers take off, but if public opinion does not want them to fall, the generals are all but impotent.

What will the world be in twenty years? The answer does depend on what powerful corporations decide, but they base their most important decisions on what you decide. They spend fortunes to influence you, for sure, but in the end they do your bidding. If you respond to ads showing happy families together, they will support that, but if you are drawn toward images of proud rebels looking out for number one, that’s the sort of world they will design. It might be easy to feel insignificant, as though nothing we do or think matters very much, but that’s a deception, designed to rob you of your power.

Education philosopher John Dewey observed that the most important outcome of a good education was intelligent desire. The truth of his observation becomes easier to see day by day. If ordinary people are not intelligent about what they want–if their desires are not wise and healthy and far-sighted and generous– then the power of our vast organization will curse the world--maybe even destroy it. But if we are intelligent about what we desire, then the future may be better than anything we’ve seen yet.

A lot depends on how well you think. In a sense, that’s always been true. We can’t stop thinking, but we are free to think about whatever we want, and who we are is shaped by what we keep thinking about.

So how do we think well, and what should we think about? An important key is to ask the right questions. We all have questions. That’s natural. From the moment we are born, we inquire. Toddlers never stop questioning: What is happening? What does it mean? How do I get what I need? Am I safe? What should I do now? All of us ask and answer questions moment by moment all through life.

The trouble is that by the time you’re a teenager, you’ve got enough survival stuff figured out that it can be easy to spend most of your time wondering whether your new outfit will impress the cute boy in fourth period chemistry, whether your homework is good enough to get by, or where you can get the best price on a new song download.

All of us deal with lots of little questions and that’s okay, as long as that’s not all we think about. It’s important to spend a part of each day and week thinking about larger questions. Nothing has more importance to the quality of our lives than the quality of the questions that we think about.

Lots of educators stress essential questions. Essential questions go to the essence of things. What has changed and what has stayed the same? Why? What have we gained? What have we lost? Where did Americans get their ideas of freedom and justice? What is the right balance between tradition and progress? And a couple of my favorites: What does it take to build community? What does it take to sustain community?

The earliest Americans apparently formed communities around a question vital to their survival: what’s the best way to kill a wooly mammoth using stone-tipped spears? An individual alone didn’t have bright prospects ten thousand years ago, but when a group of people found they could think together by sharing a question, they took a huge step forward. They were able to meet life more creatively.

Essential questions are about creativity. They grow out of our imaginations. They are the force that drives science forward. Essential questions arise from our sense of wonder, and they are the basis of art, stories, mathematics, and philosophy.

Creativity and freedom are deeply related. To be free is to see that time is opportunity, and that individuals can make a difference. We can change and our world can change, and we can take charge of those changes if we ask the right questions and use the right strategies in pursuing answers. Knowledge can be acquired. Knowledge can be created.

Another way of saying this is that if it matters what we think, then we have a responsibility to become better artists and historians and scientists in our daily lives. We cannot delegate this work to specialists and professionals. We can’t let someone else do our thinking. We have to invent the answers to our essential questions. Inventing good answers may take a life time, and even then, the answers most often will not be final. They will be the basis of new questions.

One of the reasons that your best teachers don’t simply stand in front of you and tell you the answers you need to pass some test is that they are working with you to try to answer harder and more important questions than those you’ll find on all those paper and pencil tests. Our society today faces hard questions. Who owns the creativity of the past? Who owns the life forms modified in biology labs? What is the role of nations? Can huge corporations serve a higher morality than that of maximizing profit? How should the world’s religious people understand and relate to one another? How can the almost surreal power of our military be kept under the control of goodness?

The world keeps changing, so a good education can’t be a list of right answers to yesterday’s questions. It also needs to be about how to form questions, conduct research, and create new answers. We grownups don’t necessarily know the questions you will face let alone what answers you will need.

But we do know some things. We know that history is the great owner’s manual to the world. The past is where we go to find out how the world works, how things start, how they end, how they falter, and how they grow. The past is our inexhaustible source of creativity and innovation.

Some of you have studied your communities as they were in 1910, or 1935, or 1968, and you’ve seen that a good town doesn’t just happen. It is built by people who, first of all, want to build a good town, and who then use their freedom to think and to act intentionally, to build better roads, to develop irrigation and water projects, and to support schools and libraries and courthouses.

We are so used to such things that we take them for granted, but they are in fact success stories from one of the greatest experiments in world history: the experiment of self-government. The essential question that drew America into existence was whether we could create a place where people could figure out, step by step, how to govern themselves–how to untangle their own knots, how to unburden their troubled lives, how to make themselves more at home.

Our parents and grandparents did create such a place. The western historian Walter Prescott Webb argued that because the farming techniques learned in the east didn’t work on the arid Great Plains, the people who stayed in places like Montana had to think and invent to survive, and they cherished their freedom to do so. Because the challenges were too difficult to face alone, they developed deep traditions of neighborliness. And because the land was relatively empty, the importance of a solitary individual loomed large. Such is our heritage.

We receive our heritage as a gift, but by taking responsibility for that heritage, the German poet Goethe told us, we make it our own. In your hearts and in your minds, the best of America’s traditions are right now meeting the world’s latest challenges. It matters profoundly what you think, and you have an unavoidable responsibility to think well.

This is why learning is the world’s most important work.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey

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