Saturday, January 01, 2005

Thinking about Montana’s future
   Where do we go from here?

Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny. Tryon Edwards

The main failure of education is that it has not prepared people to comprehend matters concerning human destiny. Norman Cousins

Every people should be originators of their own destiny. Martin Delany

Several things seem notable about the present state of education in Montana.

First, we have lots of information. The challenge for teachers does not consist of getting information in front of students. The challenge is getting them involved in ways of living that make using this information important.

Second, the simplest way to do this is to invite students to speak. We all want to be heard, by somebody.  Once we think we have an audience, it’s natural to want to look and sound good. A young person who knows she’s going to present before an audience of fellow students or of interested community adults or of both will want to do a good job. Science fairs have been demonstrating this for decades. Having your work on display before the public, and having the chance to stand beside it and explain what you did, regularly leads to a tremendous amount of learning that wouldn’t have occurred if you had only been getting ready for a test.

Asking people to teach is far and away the most powerful teaching strategy and it should be used more than it is. When we need to organize a body of knowledge and communicate it to others, we think about it much more deeply than we do for most other purposes. This is why “teach” is the culminating process in the ALERT approach to organizing instruction.

There are many ways we can get students to adopt the role of teacher. In the Heritage Project, high school students have written books, conducted programs, and made videos for younger students. They have also done many programs aimed at the larger community--publication parties, heritage evenings and fairs, and community forums where students report back to the community information they have garnered from interviews with community members and organizations. One such forum focused on water and reported findings from local irrigators, state agencies, and tribes.

The future of Montana and of particular communities has also been the subject of important work, notably in Chester and Libby.

We all think about the future, and the younger we are the more we think about it. Young people have to be concerned about the future because that’s where they’re going to live most of their lives. For all of us, what we anticipate about the future powerfully affects the choices we make. Though much of the future is unpredictable (who knew a tsumani was going to occur in the Indian Ocean), much of it is very predictable (who did not know natural disasters would continue to occur, as they always have). Wisdom has much to do with seeing what things are always true, so that we aren’t duped by change.

This is the thing that seems most notable about education in Montana today: our future depends upon citizens taking advantage of emerging possibilities without losing sight of the unchanging principles that govern change. We are not in position to coast. The things we value are threatened by economic, cultural and political changes. We can close our eyes and hope for the best, or we can examine our situation critically, talking with our young people about our prospects.

If we invite many people whose work doesn’t normally include teaching to join us in teaching young Montanans about this place and how we live here, we will give them an opportunity to learn and to think more deeply by giving them the chance to teach. And by devoting time to discussing Montana’s future, teachers can direct some of their students’ natural interest in the future toward an interest in research and presentation at the same time they help students think more powerfully about the state’s future and their own, and of the ways thieir own destiny are linked to Montana’s.

One place to start is to see what others have said about the topic:

Here’s something I wrote on that topic.

John Baden believes that a good future for Montana depends on three strategies: “First, protect wildlife habitat, our scenery, and amenities. Second, stress education and infrastructure. Third, enact policies that foster entrepreneurship.”

Economist Larry Swanson says Montana’s future lies mostly in its urban areas. “Montana’s cities are sized right to capture the job and income growth in medical, professional and service-related fields that have fueled the economy throughout the Intermountain West.”

Ranch manager Ray Marxer believes that “Fisheries and ranchlands are both important to Montana’s future,” he explains. “It’s beyond argument that ranches provide significant undeveloped areas that define the landscapes under the Big Sky. And now, whereas fishing was once looked on as a frivolous thing people did when their real work was done, both the economy that fishing provides and the role it plays in the life of many of us are being realized for the true assets they are.”

Karl N. Stauber begins thinking about the future of rural places by examining the historical and economic reasons they now face trouble. He believes the keys to the future of rural America are ensuring a robust middle class, reducing concentrated poverty, and maintaining a healthy natural environment. His recommendations for the future go beyond the usual rural development plans which, he says, “are designed for the past, not the future.” Among his suggestions: (1) replace land grant colleges with information grant colleges, (2) focus on value-added agriculture and technology that create rural competitive advantage, and (3) encourage entrepreneurial immigrants from Central and South America and Asia to relocate to sparsely populated areas.

Readers: Please use the “comments” link below to post additional resources dealing with Montana’s future.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/01 at 03:59 PM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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