Stories, Learning & Place

Friday, October 08, 2004

The View from I-90
   Helping students construct a point of view


I drove back to St. Ignatius from Helena yesterday though a gorgeous Montana autumn. The brilliant light flaming in the cottonwoods along the river made it hard to keep driving. I wanted to stop and explore.

Not that I disliked the reality of gliding through an almost timeless landscape at more than a mile a minute, feeling the grip of steel-belted radials on the exquisitely engineered curves and rises of I-90, listening to an audio recording about Alexander the Great written by first century C.E. biographer Arrian on my Subaru’s stereo.

It was great fun, hurtling through space encased in an elaborately contrived point of view sustained by layers and layers of engineering and design. I was seeing the river from a point of view unavailable to earlier travelers. A fur trader wet to the hips trudging the river bank with forty-odd pounds of traps or a Salish hunter returning cautiously from Three Forks leading game-laden ponies could imagine my swift and comfortable journey only as something supernatural.

Though watching the world through a window seems quite natural, it is actually the product of layer upon layer of artifice and construction. And it was only one of the points of view available to me. I also had easy access to information that would help me see the river as part of a vast hydrological cycle, or as a constantly changing habitat for fish, or as a potential real estate development, or as a likely site for a heap-leach gold mine.

Depending on what information I chose to pay attention to, my view of the river might be radically different.

It is the very richness of the information available today that creates the most daunting challenge for educators. A young person has before him or her endless points of view constructed of arguments and facts, and endless choices about what points of view to inhabit, all supported by web sites, music, brochures, pamphlets, videos, and reports.

In this noisy and contentious world, young people need help constructing points of view that are honest and reasonable. Much of the help they need they can get from teachers who guide them into science and history, providing a good grounding in reason and evidence, learning to see things as they really are. This is the basis of a liberal education, and it remains as important now as it ever was.

But by itself, it is not enough. This is because the most profound disagreements among those who would enlist the young in their causes are not about things as they are. They are about things as they will be, and things as they ought to be.

Our best guides in these dimensions are often those people in the community, especially the elderly, who have worked for years to accomplish good work. Every town has them: people who build museums, organize food pantries, develop management plans for rivers or forests, run 4-H programs, establish gardens, or operate successful businesses. They often understand things worth hearing.

In the simple act of gathering and telling their stories, students learn much of what they need to know. They learn how to sort through information, how to select facts that are useful, and how to combine data into coherent narratives that move the work forward. In representing others’ points of view, they find their own. Along the way they discover astonishing uses for the digital cameras and recorders and multimedia programs that we now have, creating cultural artifacts that will be of great worth to other people.

And they also learn a fundamental secret of life: learning is a joy. It goes beyond whatever information highway we find ourselves upon. We can pull out of the traffic and park, climbing down the bank to make our own photographs along the river bottom with mountains beyond mountains all around.

We can see the world anew, getting to the water’s edge with the smell of leaf fall in our nostrils and the cool of unsettled breezes tickling our skin.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/08 at 08:29 AM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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