Thursday, June 18, 2009

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 on 06/18 at 10:44 PM
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© 2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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