Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Sense of place as an aspect of mind
     Changing geographies of possibility

When the old Salish got horses, their sense of place changed. Their minds were re-shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

For centuries the Salish who lived where I live now had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass. As the air became colder, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.

These rhythms and movements were aspects of mind for the old Salish.

When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was transformed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors, able to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes.

They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo and the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

In changing the way they related to space, they changed their minds. 


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What we owe the people of the past
     Eating lunch in Astoria, Oregon

We live well on gifts from the past--our enormous infrastructure of systems and designs. Do we owe the people who prepared these gifts for us anything? Yes. We owe them understanding.

Some places in Montana make it clear that we have been invaded. The mansions sprawling across the mountains at Big Sky, the gates of the Stock Farm in Hamilton. Though I can imagine people who build 23,000 square foot houses with Olympic swimming pools and shooting ranges that they will inhabit only occasionally, during a golf tournament maybe, I have no real way to check what I imagine against reality.

Already the West is filled with places that locals have lost. Sun River, Aspen, Whitefish. Visiting such places, I already feel myself becoming a part of the past, part of something that is being lost.

My home landscape becomes a backdrop for meals enjoyed by strangers. The place I live along Mission Creek on the Flathead Reservation was once a camping spot shared by tribal people now long gone. Their descendents are more like me than like them. In some cases (my grandchildren) their descendents are also my descendents. And in some ways, I feel closer to them than to these newcomers.

What do new arrivals owe those who were here before?

I wondered about that over a bowl of clam chowder at the Cannery Café in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. I had spent the day exploring the lower Columbia, made sad by how much had been lost. I had intended to meet a friend for lunch, but a family emergency called her away, and being alone intensified my sense of transience, walking with a camera along the sandy beaches of a vast river.

The warehouses along the river, faced with brilliant signs bearing the names of large Japanese corporations, seemed small recompense for vanished salmon and vanished people, who once moved together in the rhythms of camping, fishing, and cooking.

The cafe itself was built on the site of one of the salmon canneries that once gave Astoria its reason for being. It was clean and gentrified, with good views of the harbor and seals swimming near the docks. Photos of the canneries, and the people who worked there, hung on the walls.

I had just come from the museum with my notebook and was enjoying a meal with the ocean and seals as a backdrop. It was very good.

I was acutely aware that the people who had worked the cannery, or fished the river, didn’t have it nearly so good. Their lives were spent in struggle for food and shelter. I knew enough of trudging to work in cold dawn, of hands rubbed raw by labor, and of a clock moving ever so slowly, measuring out my endurance against tasks that could never been done, to at least imagine my kinship with those haggard-looking people staring out at me from tastefully framed sepia photos.

I was also aware that it was their struggle, the struggle of earlier generations, that had freed me from a similar struggle. Food and shelter now come easily because of the stored wealth of infrastructure and design that is my heritage. I live well on the gifts of the past made by those who lived there.

Now, I have time for other struggles. It seems to me that one thing I owe all those people, the strange creatures staring at me from from lives that are so hard to imagine, is understanding. To the extent that I can feel what they felt, sense what they feared, and appreciate again what gave them joy, I think I can still help them. What we all want is to be recognized, and listened to, and empathized with. I can give them that.

Sometimes, listening to old-timers talk about moments far in the past, I sense how it is that moments of time do not ever really end. The people of the past are gone, but they are not gone away, just as the children we ourselves once were are gone but not gone away. Time is haunted.

At the end, we see what the world always was: a story just beginning.


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Local community memory
     Are we in a dark age of community communications?

Kevin Harris wonders whether we are living in a dark age of community communication. I wonder whether working together on community and family histories might be one way of getting back together.

Kevin Harris wonders that modern society seems to lack “the sense of readily available common repositories for local community memory. It’s as if what we’re left with is no longer fulfilling the role of shoring-up everyday lives, of giving form to neighbourhood life.”

He mentions contributing factors, such as the automobile and the television, and laments the loss of a time when “communication between neighbours was lubricated by frequent interaction in the street, in the workplace, in the pub, at school, at the football match or at the church.”

This perspective suggests that we may be living in a ‘dark age’ of community communication, where at the moment we have neither the benefit of dense overlapping networks in our neighbourhoods, nor the potential of an online resource for the accretion of community memory.

I wonder how much the action of building those lost repositories of community memory might provide the animating motive for rebuilding family and community. The wild growth of interest in family genealogy suggests to me that living communities organized around reclaiming and understanding the past might be modern equivalents for old time barn raising and branding parties--work that draws people into shared, purposive relationship.

The History Begins at Home video from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gives a glimpse of what kids can do. When you have a neighborhood’s history and its children involved, you have powerful forces for inviting engagement from others.


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Place and narratable moments
     Longing for a sense of place

The phrase “sense of place” has migrated to the commercial world, where it is linked to the decor of kiosks and fast food counters. But it became popular because of a longing people have for narratable moments--events that have meaning, and that we cannot recall as separate from the places they occurred. It is those meaningful events, rather than the geographic spaces that evoke them, that are of human importance.

If you land at JFK airport and come through Terminal 8 or 9 you may notice that the 60 or so shops – food courts, kiosks, newsstands, duty-free stores, etc., etc. – aren’t quite the same as those in, say, New Orleans or San Francisco. You see, these shops are “visually related� to each other through design elements inspired by the 1930s New York streetscape.

This provides a “sense of place,� the designer said. So between the taxi lanes and the portable tunnels to climb aboard planes, this corridor is given the atmosphere of a recognizable time and place. Though the terminal as a whole is designed to sort us and move us like so many widgets past uniforms and signs through some total administrative state of loudspeakers and no smoking, the murals, signs and plastic cutouts give us a feeling of ease as we negotiate the minimum security nowhere in which we have locked ourselves. This noisy chute to anywhere offers the charm of a custom retail environment without sacrificing the comfort of familiar brands.

The plan worked. The decor increased per passenger spending by fifty percent, the designer said. This, the designer said, was because it gave passengers a sense of place.

A sense of place. Not the real thing, I suppose, but a sense of it like the after image of a blown out candle. A sense of place haunts the Pizza Hut, evoked by wallpaper images of nineteenth century London.

With such thoughts in my mind, I hesitated when an editor called and asked me to write a piece on “teaching and a sense of place.�

“Let me think about it.”

In most ways I don’t mind the designer thinking about how to make more people spend more money. That certainly doesn’t make her worse than me or my friends and family. Most of the time I don’t do anything more ennobling than turning my time and skill to what pays. And really, the New York streetscape is an improvement over those old Soviet cafeterias designed by political appointees who didn’t care what sort of feelings a space gives us.

Still, I suspected that an editor asking for a piece on “sense of place� was expecting something more profound than marketing. Her audience was no doubt hankering after something more authentic than moods evoked by plastic signage. We use “authentic� much as the optimists before World War I used “progressive,� as an all-purpose term of praise, part accolade and part prayer.

No doubt the editor thought I was a natural to write about a sense of place since I still live in the western Montana town where I grew up – a little place of about a thousand people nestled at bottom of the west slope of the Mission Range in the Northern Rockies. Surely one who has stayed in place could write authentically about place.

As I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my 21-month old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me.

“Campin?� he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmellow. He had associated the “camping� he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him.

“Campin� had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The “place� we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson. His mother had gone there with my wife and me. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass by that little place on Wounded Buck Creek without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road.

But it had become a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place but what had happened there that he wanted.

In a word, it was story that mattered. Not a story we have told but the story we have lived.

There are significant dangers in misunderstanding what it is that one wants. I worry that sometimes people who are pursuing a sense of place are not clear about what they want. All our airports and shopping districts might get prettier and we might be just as lonely, just as full of longing.

What we want are stories and hugs.


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The limits of critical thinking
     Argument is ineffective in morally pluralistic societies

Because logic doesn’t have the power to generate true beliefs, critical thinking in a morally pluralistic society is not an effective way of chaning people’s minds--including the minds of students. Unable to change minds and fearful of accusations of bias, teachers have abandoned teaching authority to let the market rule in their classrooms. 

One problem teachers sometimes encounter when they think their job is to teach critical thinking is that they wade into controversial topics where, one would think, critical thinking would be of help. But once the arguments start, the lack of moral consensus in a post-sixties world sometimes leaves them with nothing they feel they can say.

So they turn the kids loose to do their own thinking on such questions as whether torture is always wrong or abortion is defensible or what marriage means. What follows, naturally, are the arguments we have all heard, ad nauseum. The kids repeat what they have heard, sometimes from home but often from media, and teachers stand by in more or less idle tolerance.  They make it clear that on the large moral questions of the day, they are being taught, but that the teaching is being done by churches, by MTV, or by Hannity and Colmes. It is not being done by schools.

Another thing that becomes clear is that people seldom change their minds about fundamental beliefs because of arguments. The interminability of the arguments is itself a rather vivid illustration of the ineffectiveness of argument in a morally pluralistic society. This was a central point in Alasdair MacInyre’s stunning book, After Virtue. The enduring disagreements tend to be at the level of perception and emotion rather than at the level of concept and logic. Many positions people hold were not formed by critical thinking and will not changed by it.

All this is fine for the teacher who simply wants kids to be fluent, able to indulge, perhaps, in the intellectual pleasures of pointing out and naming the fallacies in others’ thinking. But for a teacher dedicated to preserving the truth in a chaotic world, the tenuous relationship between true belief and logic creates a dilemma. What is to be done when young people hold beliefs that are wrong or bad?

Though I hope most of us have corrected and revised our own thinking by coming across arguments that changed our minds, this normally happens when we believe there is a right order to things and that we have a responsibility to search for it and to change ourselves as our understanding improves. But it is now common to meet young people who believe there is no right order to things. There is instead an authentic self struggling for validation.

Logic that doesn’t validate their feelings about themselves is, like, whatever.

When we begin with true beliefs, logical reasoning doesn’t lead to false conclusions, but neither does logic generate true beliefs. In practice, our beliefs tend to be socially constructed. We may have certain political beliefs because our parents had them, religious beliefs because our tribe has them, occupational beliefs because our co-workers have them, and beliefs about what books and movies are good because our friends have them.

We can get true beliefs from observation, such as the belief that men on average are larger and stronger than women or that politicians frequently deceive in the manner of magicians, getting us to watch the silk handkerchief in the right hand while the left hand does its trick.

The realm of truth derived from observation is the realm where science excels. Science teachers are still quite willing to correct mistaken beliefs that students hold--such as the belief that summer is warmer than winter because the earth is nearer the sun. Science teachers even manage to use constructivist approaches without lapsing into silly solipsism. They remain firmly dedicated to the proposition that there are wrong answers--many more wrong ones than right ones, in fact.

Maybe it is time to discuss focusing the public school curricula much more intensely on math and science. Not only is there more consensus in these subjects, they also pay better. Where’s the money? has always been a central question of American schooling.

Why continue teaching the humanities in the public schools? Why not empower all our ethnic and religious groups who want self-determination to teach their view of right and wrong? Why not celebrate the diversity? If we continue in the cultural direction we have been moving since the sixties, Might it not make more sense to accept the reality that as the realm of moral consensus shrinks, so may the scope of practice for public school teachers?

Much of the value of the humanities derives from complicating, refining and extending beliefs that we know by faith, such as the belief that truth is a virtue, that justice is better than injustice, or that love is a form of cognition. Without such beliefs, it’s possible to enjoy even the Holocaust as a historical spectacle, in somewhat the ways it’s possible to enjoy films staged by Mel Gibson or Oliver Stone as a theatrical spectacles. This was brought home to me years ago when I visited a classroom where high school seniors were watching Speilberg’s movie Schindler’s List. At the most brutal moments, some of the kids laughed--a response they might have learned from Schwarzenegger’s films. In any case, the teacher did not correct their thinking. It was, after all, theirs.

People who do not believe this or that moral truth cannot be made to believe it by logic. It isn’t possible to prove that one world view is right and the other is wrong. Many ideas might follow from this observation, but one that has been highly favored among university humanists is that right and wrong are not very useful categories.

This is probably the defining charcteristic of secular rationalism, also calleded modernism and liberalism. If God is dead, then we are free to make our decisions about what we think is right.
We are morally autonomous, and we get to set our own standards. People who come to feel this often feel liberated. They can do whatever they want. The trouble with this world view comes into view when somebody wants to do something to them that they don’t want done. They want to call on some absolute moral authority to claim that it’s unjust or intolerant or inhumane. But who is that moral authorty?

In a 1979 lecture, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff called this the problem of “the grand sez who?” If there is none but human authority and every person’s moral authority is equal to every other person’s, then we have no basis from which to condemn what anyone does. We can say that homosexuals have a right to express their sexuality as they desire, but then we also must agree that someone else has a right to refuse to hire them. Who has the authority to say otherwise?

The problem is that in modernist thought normative statements claiming this or that action should not be taken are foundationless.  When modernists feel the need for foundations, they often cite Darwin. It seems plausible that a tendency for cooperation or for telling the truth increases our chances to survive. Unfortunately, so does a willingness to kill the weak and take their property. The latter is, in fact, a closer fit with the theory of natural selection.

Modernists sometimes claim other sources of moral authority, trying to derive it from the rationality of utilitarianism or the prgamatism of majority rule, or simply trying to assert it with vague platitudes about equality, but as more and more people learn how simple it is to challenge the pretensions of such authority--a simple sez who will suffice--we find, as Leff said, “Everything is up for grabs.”

Leff ended his lecture not with reasoned conclusions but with undisguised assertions of what he wanted to be true:

Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot-and General Custer too-have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who? God help us.

Modernists who want goodness usually feel that rational minds will reject such things as slavery, but they have not been able to establish rational reasons why this should be so. They take refuge in believing that people are simply good by nature or they slide on into post-modern nihilism. We are left with no basis for public authority, and as groups get farther from each other in our moral pluralism, they find it increasingly difficult to talk with each other in ways that make sense and can be understood. They find it increasinly difficult to keep the peace.

To keep the peace, humanities teachers avoid speaking with authority, which in practice means taking seriously viewpoints they think are corrupt. The hard issues we face as a people, if it’s reasonable to say we are a people, are not discussed in classrooms lest classrooms take on the ethical tone of those cable news shows where controversial topics are handled by letting representatives from all sides have their say. If bestiality becomes newsworthy, we will get someone who’s for it and someone who’s against it, and let them hash it out. Who is to judge?

The consumer, of course. We’re not quite to the point where we give up on truth, as can be seen when partisans of all sides try to get schools to teach the one correct view. Darwinists abhor the idea of allowing Intelligent Design to be taught alongside mainstream biology, because they feel doing so gives the yahoos credibility they should not have. Evangelicals do not want homosexuals presenting their views on marriage at school because they feel such ideas are the products of malformed consciences, and to present them to young people is to corrupt rather than to educate. In such disputes, no side can appeal to any authority recognized by the other side, so resolution is not possible. In time, even co-existence may seem too much to ask.

Because the schools have not yet become pure markets, we still struggle with politics, with notions of right and wrong. We argue about what is to be taught about sexuality, evolution, history and literature. But more and more, the arguments come down to, sez who? So within classrooms, the market approach grows apace. Teachers take the safe course, which is the cable news approach: all opinions are aired and no authoritative positions are taken. The old nation America continues to fade way into this new market state. In the market state people consume moral points of view just as they consume ethnic cuisines. They select from an array of opinions peddled without judgment and without authority by a media system that has no morality beyond that of ratings, which is to say, money.

Meanwhile, critiques of liberalism and modernity have spread from moral philosophers to the masses. Its incoherence has become fodder for radio talk shows. Its moment has past and I don’t think it can regain either the intellectual or the moral authority needed to govern.

The task for teachers today is not easy. We do not live in times when we can simply pass on the traditions, such as modernity, that we grew up with.


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Thinking critically about critical thinking
     The truth shall set you free

In education the term “critical thinking” is often has overtones of a decidedly Marxist tenor. It is associated with the “critical theory” crowd, including Paulo Freire, Herbert Marcuse, Jergen Habermas, and Henry A. Giroux.Critical thinking need not be a tool to keep us poor and ignorant, fighting among ourselves for our various class, gender, and racial identities. It can also be a tool to bring us nearer to truth. The democracy I yearn for is a rep
ublic of inquiry, where fell
ow seekers of the truth outgrow the limitations of their ethnicity, religious upbringing, gender and class biases by attempting to understand and overcome disagreements. Where that cannot be done, they negotiate one law that all will live by, and thus come nearer to understanding universal principles.

In my work in schools I haven’t talked much about “critical thinking,” though I used to talk about it a lot, when I was a young English teacher fresh from the university, more or less successfully indoctrinated by the soft Marxism that permeated the world of higher learning. I was a poor kid from a rural country disillusioned by my experience in Vietnam, surrounded by siren songs that promised liberty, equality, and fraternity, among other things. Many such songs, I later came to see, evoked only what Thoreau called “a vain reality” upon which many were shipwrecked.

Although “critical thinking” has long been used to refer, in a common sense way, to such things as asking whether the evidence we are presented is sufficient, or whether the reasoning is logical, in education the term has noisy overtones of a decidedly Marxist tenor, and such things have lost all their allure for me. The phrase is most often associated with the “critical theory” crowd, including such luminaries as Paulo Freire, Herbert Marcuse, Jergen Habermas, and Henry A. Giroux.

Some of what they say is true, of course. They focus on power relations, seeing the world primarily as a scene of groups struggling against one another. For them, critical thinking is a technique for unmasking the hidden power stratagems of dominant groups so that the oppressed, anyone with less of something than someone else, can be liberated and empowered, and so on. As I said, this is true to a point. Of course there are powerful interests who use all sorts of subtle means to further their interests, and of course there are struggles for material that are often organized along class lines.

But in my work outside of graduate classrooms, trying to help actual poor people and young people in need of guidance, I have found those who speak most readily about paternalism, sexism, false consciousness, domination, globalism, hegemony, and transformations are more often than not stuck in intellectual ghettos where no work can be done. Life, for them, would seem good if it were organized as a graduate seminar, where the most verbal could rule.

I do not like the sort of societies that have emerged from thinking like theirs. Societies where the pursuit of group interest undermined the pursuit of understanding the universal principles by which we should all be governed. Societies where fundamental thinking gave way to expedient thinking, and where the passion for solidarity trumped the cultivation of civility. Societies where utopian dreams of equality fostered envy, which was a form of hatred, and which led to terror. Societies where the importance of education (understood as knowledge of the world) receded and the importance of therapy (understood as a reification of the self’s fantasies) advanced. Societies where people came to believe that privilege caused suffering and that wealth caused poverty, and so did little (beyond speech making) to relieve suffering and poverty. Societies where class provocateurs rose to power championing the cause of the poor, but, liberated from fundamental beliefs, found nothing to stay their corruption.

The evidence is as large as the twentieth century--Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. And it’s ongoing:

The criminals in Peru’s Shining Path emerged from the philosophy department of a provincial university. They began by reading Hegel and Marx and went on to slit the throats of peasants they called “collaborators.” The Basque terrorists in ETA were incubated in Catholic seminaries. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, Jesuits from Central American University, fascinated by the ‘’theology of liberation,’’ egged on the communist guerrillas—and themselves were eventually murdered by the military. Miami Herald

Of course, most teachers who talk about liberation and empowerment aren’t dreaming of glorious revolutions. I have visited with lots of teachers who understand that right-thinking people should never use the words “capitalism” and “corporations” without a slight sneer, but who don’t think of themselves as Marxists. They are simply normal, like everyone else, inhabiting the consciousness that comes with their station in life. They would like poor people to be wealthier and the environment to be healthier, that’s all.

Well, so would we all. But I think we are more likely to make progress in that direction if we begin with an accurate diagnosis. Much of the discourse of public education seems naive and foolish to me. Our trouble is not fundamentally caused by capitalism or by corporations, and the habit of naming these as the source of our troubles is more than mental laziness--it will have real world consequences. Teachers would do better, I think, to name greed, selfishness, and diverse varieties of lust as the source of our trouble. It would help students to see more clearly what ought to be done.

Yes, there are powerful interests with sinister designs. But it does not follow that power is always oppressive (it does follow for Marxists, who simply define power as oppression, and thereby render themselves incapable of solving any real problems). It is their moral wrongness rather than their wealth that should be examined. For me, the question comes down to cases. Is what this group is saying good and true? The answer to that question gets us farther than answers to the questions favored by Marxists: Who is speaking? Do they have any money?

Of course, to think well about goodness and truth, one must believe in them. I do believe in truth. I believe in an old-fashioned understanding of truth that preceded science. I believe in the truth that we create in our relationships.  We can make promises and remember them. We can utter vows and keep them. We can fathom timeless principles and bring our conduct into harmony with them. I have known people who lived in ways that were true to themselves and to those around them. I admire them and try to learn from them.

I believe there are moral truths--universal principles that govern reality. If we violate those principles we suffer the consequences, regardless of what values we claim for ourselves. We should not lie, and if we do lie we lose trust, and as trust is diminished so is the power and security that comes from unity with others. We should not harm others, and if we do harm others, we acquire enemies, and eventually this will cause us harm. We should put resources to good use and not waste them, and if we do waste, we will find prosperity harder and harder to sustain. We should serve justice, and if we do not serve justice, the world around us becomes less just and we have more to fear. I believe that helping young people see these principles is more liberating than persuading them that their destiny is dictated by oppressive regimes.

I also believe in a newer understanding of truth--that developed by scientists. I believe there can be a correspondence between our ideas of the world and the world itself. At its simplest level, this means that when we plant pea seeds we expect peas and not corn to grow. It’s astonishing how hostile to the idea of truth our “critical theory” colleagues can become. They begin by noting that any statement of apparent truth is covertly serving the interests of this or that group--a mundane observation--and, then they move on to thinking that since all we can know of reality is filtered through our experiences, desires, feelings, and beliefs, we cannot know what is ultimately there. Therefore, they think, no perception of reality is any more true or false than any other.

I think no end of mischief follows from such thinking. Maybe it’s a sin to believe some things without sufficient evidence. Who believed that Jews were responsible for all the problems of the Weimar Republic? Who believed that Stalin was helping the poor?

Of course, I also believe there are powerful forces who are secretly as well as openly up to no good. But I believe their deceptions, rather than their power, are the problem. It doesn’t bother me that groups and individuals exist who can spend millions of dollars making and marketing movies. But it bothers me when some of those movies propagate lies about the human condition. I do not think, for example, that a nation that suffers as much as this one does from broken families and loneliness, with more and more people unable to form enduring and satisfying relationships, is well served by movies and music that depict sex as a pleasant sport that can be indulged in casually with little or no consequence.

The critical theory pedagogues I’ve visited with hate it when I say such things. They consider such views as mine attempts to “privilege” the nuclear family. That’s their view, which I deign to privilege, because I don’t think in terms of privileges. All that seems unpleasant to me, smacking of an envious nature that makes joy impossible.

I think in terms of the blessings my family relationships have brought to me. A wise and honest people would ponder the blessings they have received, and then teach their young people what they have learned about those blessings--all the little things that encourage good fortune, as poet William Stafford put it.

Unlike privileges (which exist only in class consciousness) blessings (which exist in consciousness of gratitude for creation) can be had in infinite supply, if we choose them. Why should I not enjoy my small garden, created by my own labor, simply because my boss has a larger garden, created with hired help? Should I feel oppressed? I’m sure he has troubles I know nothing about. If I think about him, wouldn’t it be better to wonder how I could help him?

When I think about how I have been blessed, my mood improves and I am happier. Who has life enough for envy?

I have been blessed by work. When other things have failed me--career aspirations, financial plans, people--I have always been able to turn to my work--reading books written by my betters, writing to clarify my own thoughts about questions that matter to me. Making a garden out of a neglected lot with shovel and hoe. Revising earlier versions of myself.

I have been blessed by growing up in a nation where free enterprise was allowed. I am free to find work, to create work, or to stop work. When I have needed money, I have cut Christmas trees and sold them from my front yard, I have sold cars, I have been a janitor, I have fought forest fires, I have taught school, I have done electrical wiring in new house construction, I have edited a newspaper, I have run an ambulance company, I have administered schools and other programs. Always, I was free to quit and try something else. I have failed and been poor and learned from that. But I always knew that there was work to be done and people who would pay for that work.

I have been blessed by parents who stayed together and made a home where I never doubted I belonged. I have been blessed by children who like to visit my wife and me, bringing their children to us, and who like to visit each other. I have been blessed by living among people who know and teach the secrets of staying together, which, alas, remain secrets to many, though they have been trumpeted from rooftops.

I recognize that I am old-fashioned. That’s my choice. I’m modern enough, though, to have a sense of irony. I feel more and more attracted to the notion of subjecting the critical pedagogues whose jargon has infiltrated public education to the critical scrutiny they have long advocated. It’s a matter of justice, sometimes referred to as the law of the harvest--as ye sow so shall ye reap--and sometimes referred to colloquially--what goes around comes around.

Critical thinking need not be a tool to keep us poor and ignorant, fighting among ourselves for our various class, gender, and racial identities. It can also be a technique to bring us nearer to truth. The democracy I yearn for is a republic of inquiry, where fellow seekers of truth outgrow the limitations of their ethnicity, religious upbringing, gender and class biases by attempting to understand and overcome disagreements. Where that cannot be done, they negotiate one law that all will live by, allowing the need to have one law lead them to a more clear understanding of universal principles.

As science has shown, the progress of truth is away from diversity of opinion (though only on matters governed by truths--not those governed by tastes) and toward unity. That way lie friendship and peace.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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Constraints and the character of community
     Be careful what you wish for

A community’s character is mostly determined by the boundaries it understands and the constraints it observes.  A community is an order--something more unified than a crowd, and order is created by borders, by cell walls that allow life to arise from a random flux of elements. 

Advice included on a blog about forming online communities: “Invite everyone to share, without boundaries or constraints.” The site didn’t prove interesting enough for me to bookmark. The notion that including everyone and prohibiting nothing will somehow make us free and happy seems a rather constant source of unhappiness and bondage.

A community’s character is mostly determined by the boundaries it understands and the constraints it observes.  A community is an order--something more unified than a crowd--and order is created by borders, by cell walls that allow life to arise from a random flux of elements. To destroy a community, it is only necessary to invite members to believe they can live without boundaries or constraints.

Through folkways and formal rules, communities encourage or discourage conduct that strengthens or weakens the order that they seek.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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Beyond Hollywood
     Let's make a movie

Left: Richard and Catherine Saltz watch a multimedia production at the Bigfork Veterans Assembly about their son, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq. The production focused on the beauty of Matthew’s life. Through creating and watching productions drawn from the real lives of our communities, we clarify the common core of feelings and ideas that bind us together. We now have the tools to create powerful public art born of our social life, revolving around celebrations, rituals, and recurring community events such as marriages and deaths.

The Montana Heritage Project is celebrating its tenth year this year. After a decade of paying attention to work done by high school students across the state, I realize that what sticks in my mind–that is, what really matters--are the moments of beauty.

In Bigfork this year I attended a school-wide Veterans Day Assembly put on by juniors in Mary Sullivan’s classes. Part of the program included a multimedia presentation using photographs and music to pay tribute to Bigfork High School graduate Matthew Saltz, Montana’s first casualty in the Iraq War.

The format was simple--images of Matt accompanied by music. But the production transmitted a powerful message about what matters to one group of people in a small Montana town, simply because the photos were ones that Matt’s family and friends had chosen to record and save. People document what matters to them.

Quite a few values were celebrated, and thus taught. Work hard. Take care of family. Learn to be good at things. Set goals. Take life seriously. Have fun. Have friends, and remember them. The production was a powerful event in the community’s history–the sort of art by which cultures are created and transmitted.

The entire assembly, which was carefully staged, got me thinking about the role of beauty in teaching. We are drawn to beauty. This is important for communities to remember as they think about how to educate their youth. Teachers today compete for the attention of kids who live in a world that is noisy with seductive and sophisticated claims on our consciousness.

It’s a hard world to grow up in. Many kids have questions about what really is important. If we want our youth to stay with us, caring for what we care for, we need to invite them into the beauty we know, teaching them to see it, to feel it, and to create it.

I like what I see happening in the Heritage Project. A student in Phil Leonardi’s class in Corvallis made a movie based on newspaper research into an eighty-year-old unsolved crime. Students in Darlene Beck’s classes in Townsend used images and recorded voices to explore the local culture of quilters. Students in Dorothea Susag’s classes in Simms did a documentary production that brought to life the Sun River Valley as it was in 1910. Students in Nancy Widdicombe’s classes created a documentary video about three families who have ranched near the Snowy Mountains for more than a hundred years.

Digital tools for making movies and music have made this possible in ways that didn’t exist a few years ago. Kids today have at their command the power of a symphony orchestra. They have in their computers access to movie wizardry unavailable even to Hollywood producers in the recent past. They have the tools. What they need are good ideas about what these tools are for.

Already, the power and sophistication of local productions is limited less by our tools or budgets than by what we haven’t yet learned. The learning could be a joy. Students today need to be critical viewers of the media that surrounds them. The best way to learn how perceptions are shaped by camera angle, framing, juxtaposition, and editing is to create their own videos. The work of researching, scripting, shooting, and editing a video can be a collaborative process, a series of conversations about appearances and realities, about possibilities and results, about what matters and what does not.

Over the past ten years, the world has become noisier. Learning to focus our attention is getting to be a survival skill. We can help young people, and ourselves, by ignoring many of the distractions and making space to have important conversations, to do research, to reflect, and then to do something beautiful. Let’s make a slide show about the history of this river. Let’s make a documentary about the building of this school. Let’s make a movie about your grandfather’s life.

If we pass on our cultural heritage by using our new technology to find and celebrate the beauties of life in Montana, we will be thinking about and teaching what matters.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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Folkways, norms, and laws
     Ordering Society

Ronald Bolender:

William Graham Sumner Classified Norms into 3 Major Types:

a) Folkways - are relatively weak norms which are only mildly enforced in a society. (not against the law)

Example of Folkways

1. Correct manners.

2. Appropriate dress.

3. Proper eating behavior.

b) Mores - are the strong and important norms of a society. Violation of mores will evoke severe punishment. (against the law most of the time.)

Example of Mores

1. Bigamy

2. Incest

3. Cannibalism

c) Laws - are norms which are designed, maintained and enforced by the political authority of a society.

Examples of Violations of Laws

1. Speeding

2, Cheating on Income Tax

3. Murder


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Writing: Creative or Discursive?
     How do we think?

College writing teacher Tina Blue believes that students can best learn to be rational by practicing discursive writing. She points out, correctly, that humans aren’t naturally rational but that they “have the capacity to learn how to reason.”

“Creative writing"--writing focused on self-revelation and relying on personal experience rather than on developing organized and supported thoughts--is not nearly so useful, she says. In ”Why Students Should Have to Learn How to Write Discursive Essays” she observes that “just as the skilled athlete has, through diligent effort and application, honed physical capacities that are inherent but not well developed in most human beings, so the skilled thinker has studied and trained himself to apply mental skills in a manner beyond the reach of most untrained minds.”

She speaks from within the classical liberal tradition, arguing that “the function of training in discursive writing is to enable the student to learn the habits and techniques of discursive thought, not to provide him with an outlet for expressing his feelings.”

I agree with this without believing that it’s the whole story. I almost agree with her when she says that “discursive writing is a process which exercises both simultaneously and sequentially all of the mental skills needed for learning new information and for thinking deeply and carefully about important or difficult ideas: observation, analysis, classification, analogy, synthesis, verbalization, and memory.” My disagreement is that I think she neglects to mention the most powerful mental skill we need to learn new information and think deeply: the power of making metaphors. It is something more than skill with analogies. More about that later.

Thomas F. Bertonneau makes a similar argument in The Montana Professor. He goes further than Blue in that he links the decline in the teaching of discursive writing to the rise of political views that don’t fare well in the bright lights of critical thought:

Why then do those educators not remediate their students? Because the power of analysis, the ambit of an adult vocabulary, the salvation implicit in a skill at concepts--all of this represents the bourgeois consciousness that the “cutting edge” wishes to suppress in favor of sub-proletarian authenticity. The creation of this huge class of matriculants and graduates who have been led, unwittingly, into the state of epistemological correctness represents the radical revenge against the civilized order perpetrated by would-be revolutionaries who spurn any demand not their own. Affective agendas, like those of multiculturalism, feminism, and “sensitivity,” stand to gain in an environment from which ratiocination has been expelled. Where raw emotion has been tamed by the power of reason, such movements must answer to criticism, a confrontation that their adherents seek assiduously to avoid.

Bertonneau develops his argument more thoroughly than does Blue by analyzing samples of student writing that provide insights into how their minds work. These analyses alone are worth the time it takes to read his article. After tracing the students’ thought through their essays, Bertonneau concludes that “in situations outside those of their day-to-day social activities, these students face the blooming, buzzing confusion which the raw stuff of existence is supposed to be, according to one school of philosophy.” Because they are incapable of rigorous thought themselves, they are unaware that rigorous thought exists and that others do engage in it. “Pandered to and propagandized for years by advocates of the postmodern project, the students ‘know’ that the important things are (1) their own uniqueness and (2) the diversity of the collegial milieu.” In other words, they know what they have been repeatedly told.

Though I don’t disagree with either writer’s points about discursive writing, their arguments leave me wanting more. This is because there is much more to “creative writing” than Blue suggests. The best imaginative writers use the mental powers Blue and Bertonneau champion, and more.

In particular, they work with metaphor and kindred powers of mind. Not metaphor as simple figurative speech--"her eyes were forest pools"--but metaphor as a fundamental power of human thought, a way of thinking that allows us to contemplate something in one conceptual domain, like culture, by projecting concepts from a different domain, like geography:

. . .let’s parabolically imagine concepts as countries. These countries are often distinguished from each other by borders that appear as clear, natural divisions, like rivers or mountain ranges. Sometimes they are divided by unmapped wastelands, or by swampy and disputed marshes. Some are islands, with the sea such an obvious natural boundary that no one even thinks to question it. Over on the continent of mathematics, borders are laid out in straight, stipulated grids, which at least makes foreign relations tidy. Concept-countries have centers of life, major cities and capitals. The country of Art, which interests me especially, has many, some inhabited by the likes of Homer, Lady Murasaki, and Shakespeare, while in others are to be found Praxiteles, Bernini, and Rodin. There are less powerful towns as well, and on the frontier you can find dusty settlements of refugees from the nearby country of Craft. Some cynics claim these illegals are nothing more than economic refugees who ought to be sent home. At a border post, Marcel Duchamp argues with the guards. They are confused whether to let him in, while he laughs, telling them their post is not at the border at all, but a hundred miles inside it.  Denis Dutton

Dutton is here drawing on the work of Mark Turner.  What he points out in his mixing of concepts from the world of ideas with those from the world of geography is that it is both impossible and instantly intelligible. Our ability to think in this way, mixing features of one ”mental space” with features from another, is the source of our ability to innovate, to apply lessons learned to new situations, and, at bottom, to think as humans.

Literary writers more than any other group have explored and developed the imaginative uses of mental spaces that allow us to think about “things” that are on the border of being impossible to render in ratiocinated prose. All students should be invited to study and contemplate their work, ranging from the poetry of Yeats to the travel writing of Tim Cahill. Part of that study and contemplation, most especially for students who choose it, should include attempting similar writing themselves, including poetry, fiction, and newer genres such as narrative journalism.

Still, I would agree that the focus of writing instruction in required courses should be discursive prose. Discursive prose can be taught systematically, anyone can learn it, and it is used regularly by all who do learn it. Its powers are enormous and eminently teachable. Though I also believe there are more powerful ways of writing, they are harder to learn and much harder to teach.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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