Saturday, February 23, 2008

What bureaucracies don’t teach
   A community's sense of right and wrong

High school students John Kirtley and Gage
Sobell tape their interview with Mayor
Marty Malesich about problems facing
their hometown of Dillon, Montana.

An email from a friend expressed doubt that community-centered teaching can “preserve community.” He observes the “casinos, lofts, and latte shops occupying the bricks and mortar of former factories” and the blurred sense of community that has remained.

It does seem unlikely that communities organized primarily around economic realities can be preserved--as communities. Communities form when people come together to pursue goods. If the goods they pursue are jobs, when the jobs move on so does the community. But there are other goods that are more durable, and the communities formed around them are also more durable. My prime historical example is that of the Jewish people, who kept a sense of community through centuries, despite persecutions and diasporas.

Their secret was that they ordered life around a written text which they considered sacred and which embodied their understanding of what goods they were pursuing. By teaching this same text to each new generation, they created a durable community, within which members even centuries apart in time could recognize in their writings people who were in essential ways their kin. The community understood itself primarily in moral terms rather than in economic terms.

Though Montana logging towns have been less durable, it’s true that the actual, geographical and historical places are pretty important.

Nonetheless, once you’re there, caring about community is a moral affair. For me, the center of community is the conversation about what is right and wrong. Much of the time the conversation is tacit, but it has to be there. Finding ways to have the conversation, keep it going, and bring others into it is the work. And the ways can’t be faked, very much. There has to be a purpose that touches each life. Fulfilling an institutional mission won’t do it.

It seemed fun, when the Project was being lavishly funded by LCAOF, to see whether it might be possible to surround young people with governors and government agencies and teachers who were telling them: “The people around you are important. Ask them questions. Listen to them. Write their histories. Ponder the meaning of their experiences.” For me the answer was clearly that it is possible. However, it’s not very likely at the present moment.


I’ve thought, since my first enchanted days as an English major in Missoula, that the main reason for education in the humanities is to assist students in engaging the big questions about the meaning of life--a purpose that’s been abandoned by English literature, at least, which accounts for its plummeting in barely more than a decade from 16% of college majors to just over 1%.  “Meaning of life” would be quite a quaint phrase in a modern English department, I think.

The purpose of this engagement is to encourage right action. It’s possible for intellectual study to lead to right action because, in the old liberal arts faith, the universe has a moral structure that we are able to perceive with our intellects. Literary critics from before the 1960s tended to talk that way. Some of them understood that if the universe does not have a moral structure that can be perceived with our intellects then the humanities become just another pastime--a way of winning honors or defeating opponents or paying the bills, of no more moral significance than taking up bunji jumping or head hunting, either of which may get a Governor’s Award one of these days. This is the great truth at the center of modern English departments.

For me, teaching close reading, careful writing, and diligent research is a moral enterprise. People who think clearly are far less susceptible to the pleasant charms of fascism, for example, which are alive and well--ascendant, even.


Community is important because an actual community is the context in which we learn a moral vocabulary and form our aspirations. Only Socrates can pursue the good qua good. The rest of us pursue particular girls, particular jobs, particular trophies, particular goods which our community reveals to us. We can hunt a buffalo for the good of the clan or complete an oral history project for the good of the town, depending on what our culture provides.

Our problem--one of them--is that moral context of today’s schools is one of fragmentation and disintegration. It’s unlikely in the extreme that a modern high school could fulfill its assignments from various state and federal agencies and still deal with students as members of a community. The motivational posters in the halls change with federal mandates, and they have everything to do with propaganda and nothing to do with any sense of ourselves. Friends don’t let friends do drugs. Oh. Okay.

Well-meaning people have recognized that this has left many kids adrift, picking up what they know of right and wrong from popular culture. It would be a little crazy not to be a little alarmed by the violent young hedonists who are all over television today, and who also walk around town and come to our schools.

Most schools have now settled on a moral vocabulary of goods that they try to teach. “Respect” and “responsibility” are on all such lists, partly because disrespect and irresponsibility are common, and “empathy,” “cooperation,” and “self-esteem” are on most lists. “Reverence” is gone. “Humility” is gone. These are said to be values that all can agree on in a pluralistic society. That’s not true, but it’s a useful and reassuring fiction.

Inclusiveness is the important thing, because to engage the differences between moral communities would be to jump into a genuine quagmire where disagreements, perceptions of unfairnness, and hurt feelings are certain.

The trouble is that the “safe” morality--one stripped of living community context--tends to be too inane to do its work. What, for example, does a free floating and abstract “empathy” impel us to actually do? Should I empathize with the logger losing his livelihood or the elk losing its habitat? With the soldiers facing a ground invasion of Japan or the people of Hiroshima destroyed by a bomb?

How much moral significance should we grant to the young hedonist who empathizes with the plight of his friend who is compelled to help out with household chores at home? Was it Tolstoy who wrote about the great empathy playgoers felt for the actors playing out a tragedy on stage, while feeling only indifference to the suffering of their carriage attendants waiting for hours outside in the bitter cold with the horses?


Morality is not self-evident, except within particular cultures. When communities dissolve, so does any clear sense of right and wrong. Without a clear sense of right and wrong, young people can’t develop character. And, as James Davison Hunter puts it, “character cannot develop out of values ‘nominated’ for promotion, ‘consciously chosen’ by a committee, negotiated by a group of diverse professionals, or enacted into law by legislators. Such values have, by their very nature, lost the quality of sacredness, their commanding character, and thus their power to inspire and to shame.”

I think a lot of people over the past 40 years thought their own sense of right and wrong was innate and not dependent on historical and traditional communities. I think they thought those communities could be left to fend for themselves and that morality would survive, constructed out of reason and innate feelings.

I think they were wrong, mistaking their own feelings as something instinctual rather than as cultural capital accumulated through centuries of Christianity and Judaism. Without the faiths, their morality is proving to be no more substantial than smoke. I think of Roman Stoics at the arena, witnessing the spectacular carnage, unapproving but tolerant and accepting in their distant, cold gaze at what they believed could not be helped.

In this new age of confusion, there are no right or wrong choices, but only the freedom to choose. Since nothing is right or wrong, the choice is largely meaningless, but it is yours. If that’s your choice, who’s to say it’s wrong? Some of the kids who have grown up with this morality have really been left with nothing--a nihilism that easily rejects law and psychology and literature and technology and anthropology and history.

In the student handbook it is written that they should have respect.

Says who? they ask.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 02/23 at 09:10 PM
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© 2008 Michael L. Umphrey
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