Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 3
   My tribe is separate from your tribe

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood.
Ursula LeGuin


Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism or Native Pride, just as ignorant armies clashing at night are often more alike than different. The particular ethnicity the competing groups champion is different but the impulse to circle the wagons is the same. One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. The two sides inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ tales. The other side is their reality.

When you read the paragraph above, you quite likely began forming judgments about me based on your sense of where I stood on questions that affect you. Am I likely to strengthen or weaken cultural forces that worry you? Can you trust me to take care of the things that you feel are good? If I had power or influence, would I likely be a friend or an enemy?

Race has become so politicized that most of us have something to win or lose in the contests that go on and on, and so talking about race is nearly impossible without taking a side, except by sticking to description of what various sides say, do and believe.

Race is a complex topic, by which I mean we experience it on many levels, using many different methods of perception and analysis. When a sociologist gathers data about the behavior of many individuals to analyze statistically, he is viewing humanity at a different level than the physician who examines your white blood cells under a microscope. When we talk about race, some of us will think first and foremost about contemporary political contests, some will consider large questions of history and justice, some will think about family and blood relationship and the cultural bonds that outsiders never see accurately, and some will think about neighborhood taunts endured as a child.

Much of our dilemma grows from the fact that we can’t think clearly about complex topics by treating them as if they were simple either/or issues but everywhere we hear provocateurs who insist that every issue be reduced to simple questions and simple answers. Many people’s careers are based upon racial politics, and for their purposes they cannot be too simple or too shrill. But the ecologist Aldo Leopold taught that complex systems are full of laws that begin working at some lower limit and stop working at some upper limit, and this means that the better questions tend not to be what is the right thing to do so much as where are those upper and lower limits, when and to what degree is a good approach good? At what point does it turn from good to bad?

Talk about race resonates powerfully throughout our culture, but it resonates very differently for different individuals and for different groups. The games that are played, the silences people live with to avoid trouble, the discomfort and tension that people on all sides feel--all these make the work of teaching difficult.

I was walking down the hall in the school where I was principal and two scuffling boys didn’t notice me until they bumped into me. I put my hand on one of the boy’s shoulders as I passed and said, “Calm down.? It was a non-event of the sort that people who work with young people handle without much thought every day. But this day one of the boys whirled around and glared at me. “You’re just picking on me because you’re a racist,? he said.

I knew the boy’s family, so I knew that his family included Indians, but like many of the families on the Flathead Reservation, including my own, his had intermarried extensively and few people would identify him as Indian based on his physical characteristics. He had sandy hair, green eyes, and fair skin. His family was not poor, and I doubted he had experienced much prejudice because of his race. It seemed to me that he had been taught to see the world through the lense of racial distrust. I think he had also been taught that it’s fun to challenge authority with power words.

I related this story to a fellow school administrator, an African American, from Milwaukee and he shook his head and grinned. “Whooee!? he said, “I’m glad I’m not a white man!? He was making a joke, of course, the humor of which lay in the role reversal. Being black was once a bar to power. In some places, including school leadership positions in some communities, being white now is.

Role reversals are common in everyday life and on the large scale of national histories. I think they are part of life’s curriculum for us. We are on top and then we are on the bottom. Things are going our way and then everything falls apart. If understanding is our goal, we benefit from being in charge and trying to govern and make things work. This teaches us quite a lot about limits and about the impossibility of seeing that the right thing is done at every moment. We also benefit from being governed, sometimes by wise leaders but sometimes by fools. The most profound statements about justice have often been made by the defeated. Suffering injustice is the most powerful way to come to an understanding of justice.

My hunch is that the past makes many more role reversals against fair-skinned people, and of a much more significant nature, all but inevitable. Racial animosity toward whites has been explicitly taught around the world and it is commonly expressed without strong social sanctions. The hostility is linked to a simple story that’s easy to understand, that has a rough sort of prima facie justice going for it, and that explains a lot. And lots of people have lots to gain.

My hope is that enough of us have won and lost enough to see that neither winning nor losing brings us what we really want. The young warriors have not yet had enough fight, but I would hope that older people, from all tribes, have run enough illusions to the ground to lose interest in chasing them. The most important work of old age is advocacy for young people, and if ever there was a time when we need our elders to speak, this is it.

I’m encouraged at America’s wide-ranging success in building a pluralistic society. The failures to be true to our founding principles that we see in our past come close to being business-as-usual in world history. But the fact that we have nonetheless built cities where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists go about their business without pogroms or identification badges or papers, that we have included Native Americans in full citizenship and enforced old treaties--often poorly wrought agreements negotiated under tents in the wilderness between mid-level bureaucrats and small bands of powerless nomads--that it would take the simplest sort of sophistry to deconstruct, and that no positions are closed to African Americans and no one believes old theories of racial superiority--these facts strengthen my view that America’s founding principles--equal justice before the law and natural rights to the blessings of liberty--worked.

Though not all Americans were always true to those founding principles, those principles had the power to bend or break those who opposed them. I believe schools should take those principles seriously by teaching them and trying to govern in ways that make them come true.

The alternative is the incoherent mix of theory and longing we have at present: postmodern strategies to undermine all legitimate authority, ethnic separatism in the guise of self-determination, a soft Marxism that interprets everything through a simplistic economics. We have no shortage of provocateurs who argue that transforming the existing power structures will empower the weak. The desire for liberation through separatism, however, is not sated by its victories. Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld makes the point by focusing on Canada. “If Quebec leaves Canada, why should not the Cree leave Quebec? And why then should not anglophone villages leave Quebec or opt out of a self-determining Cree nation if it is such that they find themselves inhabiting? And if a few francophones reside in the predominantly Cree region of a predominantly French Quebec, what about their status?? The separatist desire leads to Balkanization and strife. Pandaemonium was the title of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s book telling part of this story.

The ways these tensions emerge in schools are legion. The notion that our identity is under attack by authority is practically a hallmark of the adolescent passage, and the language of oppression provides ready-made sense for any one who feels left out, or anxious or envious. But there are powerful reasons why the story doesn’t motivate students to do well in school.

The main one is that this story teaches that the route to feeling good about oneself is a matter of being part of the “good? group. No authority outside the group, which will likely include not only teachers but most of the voices in a good library, is granted much authority. Militants on all sides are hostile to school authorities who, they feel, are hostile to their essential identity. Militants are mostly anti-intellectual, indifferent or hostile to what outsider scientists and historians have to say. When these attitudes become habit, teaching authority is likely to be felt as dictatorial, as an act of dominance. But without authority there is no teaching.

When we have found our most meaningful relationships with others through a shared sense of embattlement, we may become attached to our anger. We may say we want peace, and even believe it, when we really don’t. To lose our enemy or our hatred in such situations is to lose the meaning of our lives, along with membership in our community. People who meet for intense sessions to plot strategies against their enemies don’t doubt that their lives have meaning and purpose. To the ideologue, ordinary people are small-minded pawns who don’t see the grand scheme of things. In our desire for a better world, it’s easy to transform our resentment into a moral program, our self-hatred into nobility, our extremism into heroism, our quest for power into a zeal for utopian justice, and our emptiness into a new morality. True believers, Eric Hoffer called such victims of bad stories.

Living without enemies is difficult, and it involves all manner of sacrifice. It is a pleasure to take offense, which is a way of feeling righteous. Even the worst of us wants to feel righteous, and the easiest access to that feeling is to have an enemy, and there are plenty of scoundrels afoot.

All this undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At bottom, ethnic warriors believe not in truth but in power. If they care about schooling, it is only because they see it as a technique of power. My faith as a teacher is that such people will be defeated in time by others who pay more attention to facts than to applause or credentials.

The ethnic pride story retreats from the historical difficulty we now face, abandoning the work of clarifying the common ideals and principles we will need to build a world-wide civilization–a true family of all humanity. My faith as a teacher is that true principles survive and become more clear, even as they are ignored and violated. Slavery made it clear to any who would look that humanity was destined to live under one law the same for everyone, and that this law depended for its justice upon the consent of the governed, and that the purpose of governments was to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty for all.

This is the story that I believe will emerge victorious from this age of competing narratives. 


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/09 at 07:32 AM
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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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