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Libby

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rachel Reckin
   Libby High School

Rachel got involved in the Montana Heritage Project through teacher Jeff Gruber’s independent study class. “Mr. Gruber came into our class and talked about the Heritage Project, and it sounded like it would be fun. I love music, and I knew I wanted to do something on the history of music in Libby.”

Rachel is a musician. She played oboe in the high school band and with the Chamber Players, a local musical group that included her mother, who plays flute. Rachel was selected for the all-state orchestra as well as for honors band in Washington.

She’s also an athlete, who has participated in basketball, volleyball, and track. “I did three sports my frehsman year, two my sophomore year, and one my junior year,” she said. She played no sports her senior year, but this wasn’t due to lack of interest. She just wanted more time for music. “People say they’re bored and there’s nothing to do in Libby,” she said. “I can’t even live life I’m so busy.”

Both of Rachel’s parents are teachers. The family spends lots of time kayaking and camping, and they regularly go to church together. She’s attending the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma after graduation, partly because she received a scholarship and partly because her sister attends college in Seattle. When choosing a college, Rachel thought that would be nice to be close to her sister. This also makes it easier for their parents to visit them both.

Rachel is grateful for the gifts that Libby has given her, and she has given Libby back quite a remarkable gift of her own--hopeful stories skillfully told from the town’s own past.

Rachel’s essay: Songs of Hope







Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/11 at 10:40 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Friday, October 14, 2005

Camp 07 Poster
   Libby High School

Michael K. Umphrey videotapes Cassie Roberts, part of the research team doing a site survey at Logging Camp 07, operated by the J. Neils Logging Company of Libby in 1919.

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Click image for 650 pixel version.







Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/14 at 09:20 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Enchantment at Camp 7
   Libby High School

Freedom, reason, and enchantment*: an education lacking any one of these will leave learners unfulfilled. The Local Legacies class is an elective, which helps with the freedom. It’s based on field and archival research, so its focus is upon applied reason. And traveling into the forests of northwest Montana at first light on a quest for answers from a logging camp that had been abandoned eighty-four years ago--well, it has its enchantments.

During the six months of its operation, the camp housed 90 young, single men. The camp was established just after a wobblie strike in 1917, so they were paid good wages: $1 a day. They spent the day cutting trees with crosscut saws, skidding the logs with horses, hooking them to cables to be pulled up the hill by steam donkeys to log yards for loading on trains. Old photos of the men show they were mostly thin and wiry, though other records show they ate about 5,000 calories a day. The work was grueling, and no one got fat.

An effort worthy of the day: On October 11, 2005 students in Jeff Gruber’s Local Legacies class traveled in the school van to the north slope of McMillan Draw about 8 miles southeast of Libby. Their goal was to begin documentation of Logging Camp 07, abandoned by the J. Neils Lumber Company in 1919. The assignment given by teacher Jeff Gruber was “to show the world what we can learn from a 1919 logging camp.” It led to a day of hard fun.


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Led by U.S.F.S. archaeologist Mark White, the research team followed an abandoned railroad grade uphill to the location of the camp. From left, Mark White (hard hat), Hunter Gragert, Charlie May, Chris Haywood, Phil England, Kylie Schauss, and Kira Lee. The area around Libby has about 200 miles of old logging railroad grades--more than any other location in Montana. Mark White has already done extensive work at the site.


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Retired forester Russ Hudson helps with the Local Legacies class whenever asked. He has been studying and working in the forests around Libby for 50 years. Using maps dating back to 1904, he described the forest as it would have appeared in 1919--the mix of species and the size of trees. “It’s a pleasure to work with top students,” he said.


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Videographer Michael K. Umphrey documents the process of doing an archaeological survey of a historic site for a video teaching the various ways of studying historic sites. Cassie Roberts stands on the southwest corner of what was once the mess hall while a team member measures distances to objects that are still visible on the surface.


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U.S.F.S. archaeologist Mark White had located extensive company correspondence and newspaper articles relating to the logging camp when it was in operation. Here he takes a compass reading while Cassie Roberts records the the data. With guidance from Mark, students took measurements of visible features and recorded precise locations of artifacts for a site map they will make to accompany their archival researches. Students also used sketches and photographs to record what they found.


Mark White hopes research at the site will lead to a historic trail with signage so that others can get a glimpse of what once was. He’s enchanted by the idea of bringing back to mind a loud and robust world high in the forest overlooking McMillan Creek that has now fallen silent, its fragments rusting amid pine needles and creeping kinnickinik, so a wanderer could pass by without knowing it had ever existed. “If no one studies this history, it will vanish,” he said.

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*Enchantment is a common state among children, who know the world is strange with wonders that may surprise them at any moment. Children are mostly future, and they always want to run. They do not imagine they have seen it all or that it is even conceivable to see it all.

That’s one of the ways children are often better then their elders, who are prone to disenchantment, a sad habit of mind akin to pessimism, falsely thinking it is the world that has become stale and unprofitable. In truth, the oldest and wisest of us have seen only a negligible portion of what is here. It’s true that if we don’t vary our routes or our thoughts, we risk being less and less often surprised. We get stuck in the present, unable to imagine, much less author, the future. It’s a way of losing sight of where we are by forgetting hope.

One way toward re-enchantment, I find, is to spend time with young people, to visit nature with them, and to share with them what once moved us and, in the sharing, moves us again. This might be echoes of our own youthful sense that there is more here than we see, that we heard in music, literature, or science. We might be surprised by memory of some sublime future still ringing true.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/13 at 09:19 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

High School Scholar partipates in Libby Community Heritage Program
   Libby High School

“Okay, six o’dark then,” she said. We were trying to arrange a breakfast meeting with Rachel at the Venture Cafe in Libby to discuss editing and publishing the history article she had written about music during the Great Depression. We had learned she needed to be at work by 7:30 a.m. Though we were leery to suggest an even earlier meeting, her cheerful answer gave us a clue as to how she’s managed to get such an impressive research and writing project finished even though it wasn’t even an assignment for a “real” class. She was not a shirker.

Rachel Reckin had signed up for an independent study class with history teacher Jeff Gruber. Students in the “class” didn’t meet regularly. Instead, they pursued research projects that they chose themselves. The school agreed to provide credit when the work was successfully completed, but beyond that they were largely on their own.

By the time I got to the cafe--6:28 a.m.--she and Heritage Education editor Katherine Mitchell had already agreed on the minor changes we would make before the article was published. We’d heard her read the paper to a near capacity crowd at the 206 seat Performing Arts Center the night before. Other papers were read by Montana Historical Society historian Rich Aarstad and history teacher Jeff Gruber at Libby’s first Community Heritage Program. The turnout bolstered Jeff’s and Rich’s hopes that this might be an annual event.

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Rachel Reckin reads “Songs of Hope: Music in Libby, Montana, during the Great Depression” to a community audience of about 150 People at the Libby Performing Arts Center on June 6, 2005. Rachel was a senior in Jeff Gruber’s group of independent scholars who pursued research projects into their community’s history during the school year. Her paper wove together the stories of George Neils, who bought a piano for his family and an organ for the St. John Lutheran Church; renowned composer Carl Eppert who moved to Libby to write a symphony titled Timber; and the Turner Mountain Negro CCC camp where a quartet of young men from urban parts of the company earned local acclaim for the jazz they brought to the Northwest. She researched the paper at the local library and the Heritage Museum archives. She also used oral interviews with local community members.

Rachel’s paper was also selected as a finalist among papers submitted from Heritage Project sites across the state as part of the Montana Heritage Project. She read the paper at the Project’s Youth Heritage Festival in Helena in April. It will be published in an upcoming issue of Heritage Education.






The essay wove together three strands of history. George Neils, a member of the family that owned Neils Lumber, Co., which was the engine of Libby’s economy, spent $2500 to buy a piano in spite of his father’s reluctance and the hard economic times. Later, he also purchased an organ for the St. John Lutheran Church. The family’s willingness to act on the side of hope in the hard times turned out to be critical for Libby’s survival. The family reduced hours but would not lay off the workers at their mill--the only one to continue operation through the Depression. It was only one of many ways they demonstrated that a business could pay attention to more than profit. They felt an obligation to the community. Also during the Depression world-renowned composer Carl Eppert came to Libby and stayed through the summer, working on his symphony Timber. Perhaps strangest of all, young African American men at the Turner Mountain Negro Civilian Conservation Corps put together a quartet and performed urban jazz for an appreciative local audience. In all three stories, Rachel saw the indominantable hope of the human spirit, exemplified by music, shining through troubled times. It’s a spirit she sees alive there today.

I was curious how she had come to do the project. “Mr. Gruber came into our class and talked about the Heritage Project, and it just sounded like it would be fun. I love music, and I knew I wanted to something on the history of music in Libby.”

Rachel is a musician. She played oboe in the high school band and with the Chamber Players, a local musical group that included her mother, who plays flute. Rachel was selected for the all state orchestra, as well as for honor bands in Washington. She’s also an athlete, who has participated in basketball, volleyball, and track. “I did three sports my freshman year, two my sophomore year, and one my junior year,” she said. She did no sports her senior year, but this wasn’t due to lack of interest. She just wanted more time for music.

The cafe was warm and noisy, but the sky outside was still somewhat dark. “People say they’re bored and there’s nothing to do in Libby,” she said, laughing. “I can’t even live life, I’m so busy.”

At one point in her paper, Rachel quoted from letters between George Neils and his father, who was in Minnesota. “Where did you find the materials for your research?” I asked. “Where did you start?”

“I just started looking through materials at the library. I just started collecting stuff. I have tons of stuff. When I started I thought, music in Libby won’t be that huge a topic. Then I started looking. Oh my gosh. Those ladies at the library were so nice to me. I’d come in and they’d have piles of stuff waiting for me” from the vertical files.

“I just read microfilm for a long time, not really knowing what to do. Then I started talking to people. [Forest Service historian] Mark White goes to my church. He started giving me ideas. He would call me in the evenings and talk for hours. My Mom helped.”

She took audio tapes of oral interviews from the library home and listened to them while cleaning her room. “I would spend hours looking at old newspapers on microfilm and not find anything, then five mintues later I’d find something that was just awesome.”

Both of Rachel’s parents are teachers. She praised their willingness to drive her all over the state for her music. The family has also spent as much time as possible kayaking and camping, and they regularly go to the Lutheran church together. Rachel chose the University of Puget Sound partly because her sister also goes to school in Washington, so she’ll be able to see her often, and their parents will be able to see both of them. “Seattle’s not a bad drive.”

Katherine and I asked several more questions about her high school experience. She was valedictorian of her graduating class and will go to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma next year. Did she like Libby High School? “It was great,” she said. But three of her favorite teachers were retiring. “For freshman next year, it will be a whole different experience.” The new teachers will probably be okay, she said, but she loved the older teachers. “They had thirty years of experience. They really knew what they were doing.”

Rachel is grateful for the gifts that Libby has given her, and she has given Libby back quite a remarkable gift of her own--hopeful stories skillfully told from the town’s own past.

The other papers that were read at the Community Heritage Project were excellent. Rich Aarstad read “Their minds were poisoned,” the story of the 1917 Industrial Workers of the World timber strike that began in Libby and spread down river to Libby. River drives from the Eureka Lumber Company struck for better wages, cleaner camps, and the eight-hour day. The strke spread until it encompassed the entire Pacific Northwest.

Jeff Gruber read “Log-gone it, Libby!” In this work, Jeff organized his considerable knowledge of his hometown’s history. From its beginnings in 1906 until the 2003 closure by the Stimson Lumber Company of the local plywood mill, Libby was among the leading wood products towns in the United States. Jeff explored how Libby went from having the most integrated timber processing mill in the United States to having virtually no timber industry at all.  The story Jeff tells is not about villains. Economic trends, world markets, and bad luck all contribute. Still, it’s a sad story of human ingenuity, hard work, vision, and endurance.

Rich and Jeff had prepared their articles for the Montana Historical Society Conference in Whitefish, where they read them at a session that also included Oregon State University history professor William Robbins.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/07 at 07:10 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Jeff Gruber presents history of logging in Libby at MHS
   Libby High School

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History teacher Jeff Gruber from Libby shared the podium with two other historians at the MHS Conference. Tney presented a history of logging in the Northwest, with an emphasis on Montana. It was an unusally well-done forum. The presentations covered different aspects of history and each was well-researched and well-presented. The room was packed and at least three people wanted copies of the talks. We’ll find a way to make them available to Heritage Project folks.

Together, the three presentations provided a way of looking at the way the Northwest has been shaped by this vital industry. Professor Emeritus Wlliam Robbins dicussed the history in terms of labor and capital, with a focus on the big players in the region. MHS research historian Rich Aarstaad focused on the labor movement in the progressive era, with an emphasis on the Wobblies in Montana. It was very useful for anyone wanting a better understanding of Montana circa 1910.

Jeff Gruber traced the changing ownership of the mills and timberlands in Libby, with an emphasis on management philosophies and the way they changed in response to market forces and the business environment. He took a somewhat tragic view, in that he didn’t see simple choices people could have made that would have made everything turn out well. He focused on the choices timber managers had to make, some of which led to good things for Libby but others of which have left Libby with real troubles.

I’m of the mind that Jeff’s paper should be required reading at Libby High School for at least a generation. If the only outcome of the Heritage Project was that it left Montana with community historians of Jeff’s caliber in place throughout the state, I would say that was enough to justify the investment.

He ended his talk with an image of a gambling casino that has been built in the past year on what was once the mill’s log yard. 







Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/30 at 03:09 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Part 1-Getting the story: the 1984 Houghton Creek Fire
   Libby High School

Twenty years ago the hot winds of August blew across smoldering coals from a two-week-old lightning strike and set ablaze one of the worst fires in the memory of Libby residents. The Houghton Creek Fire consumed some 12,000 acres in a matter of hours. It was only one of 643 fires in Montana that year, but it was one of the most spectacular.

Gene Yahvah worked the first 48 hours of that blaze in 1984 after having already put in a normal 8-hour shift.

On a brilliant October day (October 13, 2004) he met students from Jeff Gruber’s history classes to tell them what had happened, what people had done, and what it had meant to him.

Today, driving to Libby from Kalispell, one passes through the burn. It does give an inattentive observer the feeling of moving through a vast clearcut. Salvage logging began before the mop up crews had left the fire scene, so the stumps and old skid trails provide clear evidence that the site has been logged. But closer inspection reveals the blackened stumps, which are clear evidence of fire. Other major fires in the area occurred in 1890 and in 1910.

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Gene stands with Billy Fritz Pass and Wapati Mountain in the background at the site featured in a 1990 Sierra Club book, Clearcut: the Tragedy of Industrial Forestry. The book used a photo of the Houghton Creek fire to illustrate its claims about Champion’s clearcutting practices. According to Gene, he was dismayed to see the photo and to read the claims that Champion had clear-cut its 800,000 acres of Montana forest. He said it’s painful “to be in the area working for 30-40 years and see such a complete misrepresentation” because he knew “how much blood and guts” he and others had put into growing the forest after the wildfire. On Labor Day weekend after the fire, he said that Tag Edwards, Vice-President of Champion, flew to Libby from New York to examine the damage. “Gene, I promise you all the money you need to regenerate this forest,” he said.

The display board Gene has made shows the 1990 photo published by Sierra Club on top, a 1994 photo in the middle and a 2000 photo on the bottom. For Gene, the story is not one of corporate greed but of corporate investment in regeneration.

Gene also believes clearcutting sometimes is a good management tool. He cited the case of replacing a White Bark pine stand with a new strain that is resistant to pine beetle infestations.


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Students were given 15 minutes to work on their field notes at the final stop of the day.


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Gene repeatedly helped students to see the mountains more carefully, especially the way the various aspects of slope affected the forests. He has replanted Wapati Mountain three times trying to get the forest started again. This has worked best in the saddle, where shade and snow accumulation create more favorable conditions than on the open slopes.


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The last minutes of the trip provoked a frenzy of notetaking, which is a good indicator that the trip will linger in the minds of students.


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Catching the documentary spirit, a couple of the students wanted their photo taken with Gene. Beauty.


Students who choose to work on the Houghton Fire project will divided into five teams to deal with such topics as the pre-fire conditions, the fight against the blaze, and the aftermath. They will present their story to the community at a public event later in the year.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/16 at 12:59 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Part 2-Where someday an old forest may stand once again
   Libby High School

Thirty million board feet of lumber were lost during the Houghton Creek fire, much of it in stands that Gene Yahwah had been nurturing through thinning and light burning for decades. He had been the forest manager on the Raven Block since 1961. After the fire, he continued reseeding and replanting efforts until his retirement in 1988. These efforts began before the fires had even cooled. “This area will be a show piece some day,” he said at the time. Over the years since then, many groups have toured the site to see how the forest has regenerated in part due to thousands of hours of labor by dedicated foresters.

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Jeff Gruber is one of the Montana Heritage Project’s founding teachers. He’s been directing a demonstration site in Libby since 1995, the Project’s first year. He has been joined from time to time by other staff members, notably Gene Reckin, Bob Malyevac, Rose Goyen, and John England. On the day of the Houghton Creek expedition, Jeff modeled a proper Heritage Project fashion sense, wearing his expedition vest and bringing a camera and notebook. The heart of an expedition is the aim of bringing back knowledge and documentation.


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Gene led the students on a nature trail through the woods surrounding the Raven Ranger station. The 1984 fire burned all around the station, which had been the base camp for the original fire two weeks before the blow-up, but it was abandoned during the main blaze. Today the station exists in an island of old-growth mixed conifer forest surrounded by a twenty-year-old trees. The trail provides good views of the young forest and how well or poorly it is regenerating on the surrounding hills with various aspects.


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Across the highway from Raven, the patch of bare hillside is land that Champion International Corporation did not own and that has not received the intensive regeneration that other areas have seen. It remains nearly bare of trees, the intangible lines of property ownership made manifest on the landscape.


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Gene brought two brown paper grocery bags full of apples he picked from his trees for the kids. Here NAME enjoys a Golden Delicious during lunch at the Raven Ranger Station. Raven, about 15 miles east of Libby, is being restored by the Forest Service to the way it was circa 1930-1940. It is a popular site for nature classes by various groups in the Libby area.


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An exchange student from Denmark took careful notes throughout the day. On the ride back to town, she began the work of converting her jottings into more finished field notes, which she shared with Jeff before the trip was over. Few things are more beautiful than young people turning their attention to learning and to increasing their intellectual powers. To let others see us learn, we have to open ourselves to them a bit, letting them see us not knowing. We need to be humble and open in those ways that best let us build relationships with each other. Most of Jeff’s students seemed more interested in learning than in being “cool”. They were very enjoyable young people led by a master teacher.



Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/16 at 12:04 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

Friday, October 15, 2004

Part 3-Revisiting the Houghton Creek Fire
   Libby High School

The Houghton Creek Fire was started by a lightning strike on logging slash on August 15, 1984. It was during a red flag alert, which is the most severe fire weather condition. The woods were dry, the air was hot, and thirty mile per hour winds were gusting to fifty miles per hour. The fire blew up on August 27 at about 4 pm and by midnight it had consumed 10,000 acres, burning a swath five miles wide in places.

At the time, 16 other major fires in Montana were out of control. During the last two weeks in August, 644 fires burned 250,000 acres of forest. Though resources were stretched thin, about 1800 fire fighters were sent to the Libby fire, including 300 volunteers from Libby and Kalispell.

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Retired forester Gene Yahvah and teacher Jeff Gruber (right) gather students in the morning fog near the spot where the fire started. The 41 freshmen who made the trip had to choose to be there. The sense of adventure in the brisk morning air with huddled friends in the early morning dark will likely leave the students with memories and understandings more durable and more valuable than most of what their friends back at the fluorescent-lit school will acquire.


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The way the world ought to be and sometimes is: kids in Libby grow up in a spectacular landscape. They can better appreciate it by spending time with elders, such as Gene, who have worked and studied for decades to understand that landscape. A recurring theme of his talk was how much the history of a place leaves traces on the land that can be readily read by an observant visitor. Students could be seen gazing at various spots in the woods, trying to see evidence of fire and of thinning, whether sites were replanted by hand or by natural means, or whether forests were mixed age or same age plots.


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Students in Jeff’s class have been taught a three-stage note-taking process: first, they make jottings in the field as they listen and observe; later the same day, they transform these jottings into more complete field notes; and, finally, they draw on the field notes as they write finished papers and presentations.

The students asked intelligent questions, aiming at a detailed understanding of what had happened twenty years ago and what it meant for today.


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Seed trees: some of the sites were reseeded by natural means. Foresters selected 6-8 large and genetically superior trees per acre and allowed their seed to regenerate a young forest around them. The beautiful Western Larch, which turns gold and loses its needles each October, are prized for plywood.


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The school bus is a quite wonderful though under-used educational technology. Being able to move a group of forty students together through the landscape, stopping whenever seems good, enables us to make the world our classroom.

The danger, of course, is that we can thus make the world seem as uninspiring as a poorly prepared lecture on photosynthesis. To avoid that, we need to plan carefully, and we need to allow students to meet some of their own purposes with what they learn. Jeff’s students will decide what they are going to say to the community and how they will present it at a public program later in the year.


This was a beautiful day, in many ways. One of things I’ve learned watching Jeff and other Heritage Project teachers is the role of beauty in teaching. The best scientists know that beauty and elegance are crucial to developing sound scientific theory. They are important enough that beauty sometimes serves as a guide when things get too complex for the intellect. Some scientists believe that it’s better to achieve elegance even if the theory then doesn’t quite fit all the known facts. It may be more likely that the facts contain measurement errors or other abnormalities than that an inelegant solution is true.

Though beautiful and elegant theories can be wrong, ugly and complicated one are almost certainly incomplete if not outright wrong. At best they are momentary stays on the way toward something better.

We could use more of that understanding in education. We have too many ugly and klutzy solutions in schools and too little striving for breathtaking beauty. 


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/15 at 12:08 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project
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