Narrative Environment: Two views of Virginia City, 1863

From “Better than myth” by Annick Smith, in The Last Best Place, Montana Historical Society, 1988, p. 260.

A real storyteller. . .speaks in a voice as individual and quirky and full of nuance as your own would be in your best dreams. Here, for instance, is Mary Ronan, remembering her girlhood in the gold-mining camp of Virginia City in 1863:

There were tall buttercups and blue flags in the valley. Up Alder Gulch snow and timber lilies bloomed, wild roses and syringa grew in sweet profusion and flowering current bushes invited canaries to alight and twitter. . .Robins, meadowlarks, bluebirds, blackbirds. . .bluejays, crows and magpies lured us from where men were ravishing the gulch.

And here’s what schoolteacher Thomas Dimsdale wrote in his famous Vigilantes of Montana about the same town in the same year. He is describing the events that led to the hanging of Captain J. A. Slade:

J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilanter; he openly boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. . .He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into stores; break up bars, toss the scales out of doors, and use the most insulting language to parties present.

Can this be the same place? Which version is truest? What does “true” mean when you are talking about literature? And how has Mary Ronan’s experience altered our vision of gold camps and outlaws and vigilantes?

Beyond the voice of the storyteller, serious writing is about character and conflicts and the moral consequences of a person’s actions.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/20 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project

The death of heroes, the recovery of the heroic

David Hein:

. ..DEEPER FACTORS are also at work in the demise of the hero, The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has compared the post-Enlightenment West to the heroic societies of ancient times (repredented, for example, in the epic poems of Homer) and found them to be separated by fundamentally different understandings of the self and of moral conduct. Heroes, he believes, do no flourish outside of a network of relations in which personal identity is inseparable from one’s social role and in which such comcepts as honor, duty and shame are deeply meaningful. Other commentators have also pointed to our culture’s inhospitableness to heroes. Even more than the surrogate-hero Don Quixote, we find outselves tilting not at giants but at unromantic mechanical contraptions. Our age is much more ready to believe in the antihero than the hero, and to cast a wary eye on any soul addled by quixotic longings.

The death of the hero is further advanced bacause we recognize that Thomas Carlyle was seriously off the mark in believing that the history of the world is the history of great individuals like Moses, Muhammad, Cromwell and Catherifne the Great. History, we know, is shaped by forces far more complex, and we have learned to pay attention to the diverse contributions of workers, minorities and immigrants. They, their families and their communities used to be deemed inarticulate and irrelevant; they are now recognized as important actors in the historical drama. Moreover, an important trend in historical writing of recent decades has been the “personalization” of nonhuman entities. Historians look at the influence of large structures and processes--demography, ecology, economics, geography. While all sorts of history are still being written, there is a clear movement away from focusing on the great man and the big event. And these changes have affected education down to the earliest grades. No longer is the history of the nation represented to the young in terms of the exploits of its great individuals, as it was 50 years ago.

Finally, the demise of the hero can be seen as the inevitable result of a democratic society. Democratic heroes from the very beginning were different. Americans liked military victors if they acted like Cincinnatus and relinquished their military careers to return to civilian life. We suspected the strong man and loved the good loser, like Lee; we required our rulers to be subject to the will of the people. Sidney Hook aptly pointed out that if the hero is someone who changes the course of history, then it follows that a democratic community must be ever on guarf against such a person.

The contemporary observer could well be ambivalent about this whole phenomenon of the death of heroes.

. . .Religious-studies scholar Conrad Hyers has proposed replacing the perspective of “tragic heroism” with the outlook of “the comic hero” precisely because the latter view recognizes our fallenness and opposes all forms of dualistic thinking, and is thus much more congruent with Christian faith and the reality of the human condition. Tragic heroism, Hyers says, involves absolute dedication to causes and the clash of contending forces: good vs. evil, truth against error. It embraces the warrior virtues of courage, duty and honor. It is consonant with unquestioning obedience, the fight to the death, and kudos for the champion.

The comic vision, on the other hand, is intolerant of pride and pretension, of self-righteousness, of all finite claims to the infinite; it endorses humor, humility, child-likeness and the willingness to negotiate and settle differences. It is deeply suspicious of dividing the human family into the lowly and the lofty, the unrighteous and the righteous, the cowardly and the courageous. Its loyalty to the ultimate prompts the rejection of all human professions of goodness and claims to greatness as vanity, and enjoins acknowledgment of the dignity and worth each creature before God.

. . .We can acquiesce in the cultural process that has eventuated in the death of heroes. What we cannot accept is the loss of the heroic. The hero is an extraordinary being possessed of superior powers; the heroic is a potential attribute of ordinary men and women, as well as of children (as children learn from fairy tales). The heroic is consistent with democracy, the hero a possible threat. The hero has been honored with monuments everywhere; the shrine of the heoric is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The concept of the heroic bridges the gap between the tragic and the comic. It accepts the fragmentyary character of our knowledge, our virtue and our power (to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr), while holding fast to the old-fashioned “warrier virtues” of courage, honor and loyalty. It sees that, pace hyers, steadfastness may or may not mean a fight to the death, obedience need not be unquestioning, and the desire for kudos may be replaced by the will to act for others and for the glory of God. The traditional hero was chosen by fate or the gods to undertake a journey into the unknown; heroic thinking and doing is part of the vocation that God lays on us all as we venture unrehearsed into the terra incognita of our everyday lives.

THE “HEROIC” POINTS to certain positive features of flawed human beings who are in fact a mixture of virtues, vices and motives. The heroic vision accepts the fact that, as Plato makes clear in his Republic, the heroic by itself is not enough. England’s King Henry V and his “happy few” were heroic in their victory at Agincourt, but the point of their endeavor, the conquest of France, was less praiseworthy.

. . .Joseph Campbell has said that the hero of myth is a being who does what no one else can or will do. Today we must distinguish the heroic from the hero and say that the heroic is what all of us can and must undertake. The most important occasions of heroic striving lie pretty close to home: the efforts of the young to achieve independence and a sense of purpose, the commitment of responsible selves to marry and raise families, the work of parents in setting their children free and then in renewing their own lives. The Aztecs, who had a notion of multiple heavens, were wise to believe that women who died in childbirth went to the same heroic heaven as warriors who were killed in battle. The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has rightly pointed out that while ethics courses tend to focus on big social questions like capital punishment, censorship and the policies of hospitals and corporations, students also need to think carefully about the virtues and vices of everyday life: compassion, self-respect, courage, honor, genorosity, jealousy, narcissism and self-deception.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/19 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project

Oral history video available

Project Director
Michael L. Umphrey

Mike Umphrey hopes that lots of teachers in Montana will engage students in learning about the people in their communities this year. To help make that possible, the Montana Heritage Project, which he directs, has created a 40-minute DVD--"When History Speaks"--to show students what they need to know to get started on oral history projects.

He believes that doing oral interview projects helps teachers and students think in fresh ways about the power of learning. “Kids--all of us really--need something that shakes us awake. We need to be stopped by wonder. That’s more likely to happen when we head out into the community and begin asking questions about what’s really happening.

“How is the drought affecting people? What happened in droughts in the past? What do people think is going to happen now?

“What’s the worst thing that ever happened here? Was it a flood or a fire or a train wreck or a war? How did it happen? What did people do? Were there any heros? What were their names? How did they end up?”

“What are those big old buildings sitting empty down the street? Who built them, and for what? Who put up the money? Who opposed them? What happened next?

“When we go out into the world and start asking people real questions, we start to wake up and so do they. If there’s one thing that makes oral history a dramatic teaching technique, it’s the potential it has for waking people up to wonder.”

“When History Speaks” was produced by the Montana Heritage Project in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society. The video covers the basics of oral history: planning a project, doing preliminary research, forming a set of questions, choosing equipment, conducting an interview, using a microphone effectively, and transcribing and archiving final products.

The Montana Heritage Project is a community of high school teachers committed to passing on to the next generation of Montanans a living heritage: our love of the people and landscapes here, our commitment to learning and thinking, and our desire to use education to serve society. Through partnerships with the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society, the Project began in 1995.

Oral history projects allow students to make important contributions to the history of Montana and to their own communities, and the understanding that they are doing real work of enduring worth is motivational for many young people. But a good oral history project is more than just recording the memories of elders, as important as that may be.

“A good oral history project is about asking questions, and then asking better questions, “ Umphrey said. “It is about searching for answers, and then searching for better answers.” Until we have a question, he said, all the information in the world is just noise. 

“We become more intelligent by improving our questions, figuring out better strategies for getting answers and learning more about where we are and what is going on all around us. Well done oral history projects let wise teachers guide young people into all the little secrets of being intelligent.”

“Once we have real questions, we pursue answers everywhere we can. We read old newspapers, magazine articles, letters, and books. We talk to people. We go places and walk around, looking and thinking. We follow links on web sites.”

Umphrey is quick to dispel the misconception that oral history can replace written history. “When I hear young people saying such things as ‘this was a lot more interesting than reading dusty, old books,’ I wince,” he said. “Researchers form their questions through their reading. They find partial answers and new questions through reading. They think by reading. Interviewing doesn’t replace reading, it helps us become better readers.”

“Teachers engage young people in oral history to engage them in real life. We focus on local places because that’s where the world actually exists, but there’s nothing provincial about what we are doing. 

“We hope to wake kids up to a fundamental reality: our towns and neighborhoods and families are a story--a complex order held together by ideas and knowledge. We want them to understand that the elder before them has been a participant in that story, and that the story could always have turned out differently.

“From there, they see more clearly that they are themselves participants in the story. We want them to see that the story is always changing, and that we are all linked together in it, and that something dramatic is always just about to happen, and how it turns out is not yet known.

“We want them to understand that each of us has a role, each of us has a part. Important issues are at stake. It really matters what we do, and what we do is based on what we think. That’s why we ask questions and learn things.”

How do oral history projects fit in the accountability movement that’s swept through schools? “I get asked that everywhere I speak,” said Umphrey. “It’s easy to answer. Our kids do original research, they read significant texts, they interview people, they analyze the information, and then write about their findings and present it to the public. That’s real accountability. Our motto is ‘Keep it real.’

“I don’t have any problem with tests--I tested a lot when I taught--but tests are quick and relatively low-quality measures. They’re okay to set minimums and to get some simple data quickly, but if we want kids to learn deeply and to demonstrate complex skills, we need to go way beyond paper and pencil tests.

“If you want your kid to play oboe in an orchestra, you wouldn’t be content with a music teacher who gave a paper and pencil test about Bach or about bass clefs. You want to hear the symphony--the performance.

“Well, our kids perform. They read and listen and then they write and speak. They create digital stories that they present to the community. If you want to know how well they’re learning, come to the show! Give them something that really helps: an appreciative audience!

To order the “When History Speaks” DVD, visit the Heritage Project’s Online Store.

Posted by David Hume on 06/01 at 06:47 PM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project
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