Stories, Learning & Place

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting smart 10/24
   The way of the teacher

Learning the right stories makes us smarter.

It is from the stories they hear, the informal tales from everyday life as well as the spectacular tales of corporate media, that young people take their plans for who to be, their sense of what to admire, their notions of right and wrong and their ideas about what is real.

What appears to be intelligent varies depending on what we think we need to be doing. The Spartans wanted to live free in a dangerous world, and they did, refusing to build a wall around their city. Like other warrior societies, they surrounded their children with stories of honor, courage, endurance, wiliness, ferocity and loyalty.

Early Christians believed they were preparing their children for a better world, and that the preparation required them to live by the rules of an order that didn’t yet exist. They told their children stories of martyrdom, obedience, sacrifice, faith and hope.

America is a large and pluralistic nation passing through a postmodern phase, so here young people grow up in a metropolitan environment of competing narratives drawn from all times and places. It’s hard to think of any virtues that aren’t praised in some quarters or scorned in others. In most American schools, though, young people are embedded in stories of success, usually understood in financial terms. Also prominent are narratives of tribal pride told by groups competing for privilege, and stories of the imperial self drawn from professional therapeutics who have become a powerful class in secular bureaucracies that value an aura of eventlessness.

Young hearts are open to the stories they encounter. From images and possibilities drawn from their narrative environment, their innate desires take tangible form. A young Salish warrior of a couple centuries ago learned to satisfy his yearning for praise by bringing game to camp. A young Hasidic man could satisfy a similar yearning by demonstrating impressive command of Talmud, while a kid in the hood might display bravado in a confrontation with the law. Slavery and public torture and infanticide can seem as normal to some people as Thanksgiving and wedding dresses do to others.

Still, amid all the diversity John Dewey suggested that some desires are more intelligent than others. In fact, he said that the highest outcome of education was “intelligent desire.” In addition to suggesting a hierarchy of desires, his comment also suggests, correctly, that desire can be educated. In fact, a teacher aiming at the heart is aiming higher than one aiming at intellect alone.

Cognitive psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, an authority on human intelligence, defines it as “your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your socio-cultural context.” Central to his triarchic theory of intelligence–combining analytical, creative, and practical skills–is the understanding that people can adapt both by improving themselves and changing their environments. They can get better at pursuing their goals in the face of obstacles. They can live more intelligently.

This is easier to see if we think about the relationship between intelligence and order. Being able to recognize the patterns on I.Q. tests is certainly an indicator of intelligence–it is, after all, the capacity to discern an order–but doing well on tests is only a tiny part of the whole. An intelligent person can perceive order, create order, and sustain order not just on tests but throughout life. A greater intelligence can perceive, create, and sustain greater orders. This is not done with merely analytical skills.It also involves practical skills, such as those we use to leave behind bad habits and learn better ones. Every scholar or artist knows that excellence does not come easy, does not come without discipline. Getting smarter involves character, as the critic Malcolm Cowley suggested when he observed that “no complete son of a b**** ever wrote a good sentence.”

Everyone knows stories of people with excellent mental agility who nonetheless destroyed the very order that sustained them through acts of stupidity that grew from poor character. You know the tales--a governor who campaigned on traditional values gets caught having an affair or a chairman of an ethics committee gets caught taking kickbacks. Most of us sometimes work against ourselves through the form of stupidity Paul referred to as being “double-minded.” We want contradictory things, which is easy to do since our desires exist in a hierarchy, so that part of us may want another piece of cheesecake while part of us wants to be thin. The work of bringing one’s warring desires into sound governance is the work of character, and the person who succeeds at it can live more intelligently than the person who doesn’t.

For a teacher, seeing intelligence in this way quickly points the way to increasing the intelligence of students. A person who develops even so simple a habit as always putting his tools away so that he spends less of his productive time looking for something he cannot find–that is, in a state of stupidity–becomes capable of getting more accomplished, sustaining a greater order. Judging from the sale of books that help us get organized and declutter our lives, lots of us have figured out that we are suffering from curable stupidity amid our piles of unfinished projects.

A person who overcomes the habit of procrastination and thereby gets more work done becomes more intelligent. Intelligent people have thousands of techniques and disciplines that increase their ability to perceive, create and sustain order–techniques and disciplines that can be learned by others. Culture is, in fact, the great repository of such strategies for human intelligence.

Reflecting on the role that order plays in living intelligently also suggests what telos may be uniquely ours, most worth our time. Peace, we might see, is the state of greatest order. Doesn’t it then seem likely that peace might also be the state of greatest intelligence--the state within which we can best get what we want?

If that is true, and I believe it is, then the best cultures would be those that teach their young the ways of peace. Judged even by quasi-Darwinistic standards this seems right. Enduring cultures are formed around enduring narratives, and the narratives that have survived are those that have, despite the onslaughts of reality in the form of millions of people facing many difficult and strange situations, continued to ring true. I’m talking about Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and others that put a concept of peace at the center of the meaning of life. We live in a world where the best story wins, and no military conqueror has influenced human life on the scale that Jesus, Lao Tzu, or Siddharta Gautama has.

Humanity’s greatest teachers have spoken different dialects but all have told us in that in the end, to live more intelligently, we need to become better peacemakers. Their messages are not always simple, though, because peace is not a simple thing. Rather, it is a complex order–a system of balances–and like other complex systems it is hierarchically structured.  It can be understood as a hierarchy of realities through which a person grows, a sequence of developmental stages where each stage is a level of consciousness that is more capacious, more intelligent and more peaceful than the one below.

To understand the complex balance that is peace, we need to understand the way fear, justice and love form a developmental hierarchy.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/25 at 06:58 AM
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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