Thursday, January 06, 2005

Levels of storytelling, Part 3
   Master narratives and placemaking

The third level of storytelling is the level that postmodernists call “master narratives.” These are the large stories--such as those told by Karl Marx or Jesus--that sketch in the shape and meaning of human reality, and that thereby shape communities and cultures. The implication of the postmodernists has often been that these narratives are fictions, a conclusion that seems to follow from the fact that there are many of them, that they conflict with each other, and that we can to some degree enter or leave them at will.

It’s useful to draw on American pragmaticism here--the idea that our best approach to truth might be to select our beliefs based on what works. As pragmatist William James put it: “Grant an idea or belief to be true, . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

By asking about experiential consequences, we can discuss the objective data of what happens to persons and groups who commit themselves to various values. We can use reason to assist our decisions about which virtues to live and teach: should we be warriors or merchants or saints? We can ask what sort of society has in the past emerged when most people lived the anything-for-profit ethic or the never-resort-to-force ethic. 

While this approach doesn’t settle questions about the absolute truth or falsehood of various beliefs, neither does it deny that such truths might exist. It just turns to more, well, pragmatic questions. This is a quintessentially American turn and one that makes public discussion among folk from differing religious traditions easier.

Besides, stories can be true because people decide to make them true. Are we a generous people? Are we a courageous people? The truth is, we are if decide to be. A band of warriors can say to each other that it is better to die in freedom than to live in bondage and then back up that belief with their lives. A young man and a young woman can pledge their lives to each other, each promising never to abandon the other, and then remember and keep those promises into old age. A town can believe that taking care of the young is the most important community purpose and bring all its other agencies and institutions into some sort of alignment with that purpose.

While values can’t be proven to be absolutely right or wrong, pragmatists don’t fret about that, seeing readily that some values lead to better outcomes than other values. Should I be a Jehovah’s Witness or a Hell’s Angel? Most people lean more on experiential evidence than on philosophical analysis to make such decisions. We can see quite easily that different sets of beliefs lead to different sorts of places and that we prefer some places to other places.

When we put before young people questions about the sort of place they want to live, and then lead them to research and analyze the relationships between how other groups in different places and times have lived and what conseqences followed, we accomplish several things:

  1. We give education vital work to do
  2. We clarify the link between individual character and social construction
  3. We link the past to the future and other places to the locality where we work
  4. We teach responsibility, showing young people we cannot avoid forming the places we live
  5. We make our studies relevant by making it how much our places are made by us

Our most deeply divisive arguments about schooling tend to be arguments about which master narratives should shape the human reality of schooling. All sides talk about the so-called “hidden curriculum” of schooling.

Not surprisingly, the narratives that dominate school are the same ones that dominate society. Also not suprisingly, they are popular because they appeal to desires most of us feel and because they are simple enough to be grasped quickly. In public spaces, I prefer a pragmatic approach to thinking about such questions. What consequences follow from making this story the truth about us?

First, there is the story that says “life is a market economy.? This story leads us to feel that getting and spending money is the main thing in life. The tale has many subplots, such as “I am what I buy? and “My success proves that I’m good.?

Then there is the story that leads people to believe “I own myself? and my pleasures are an adequate guide to life.

And, of course, there is the story, told in many variants, that claims “my tribe should be separate from your tribe.? This story appeals to people’s ethnic pride and sense of connection to a cultural heritage, encouraging them to anchor their identity in their membership in groups that seek self-determination by breaking the social contract.

The first consequence is that none of these stories leads toward serious commitment to learning. Each of them, in practice provides a refuge from learning.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/06 at 05:25 AM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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