Thursday, October 28, 2004

Montana Dreaming: a play about the Unabomber as a sixites icon

So, here we have a play about the unabomber, with the title Montana Dreaming, of which the author says “Ted Kaczynski embodies the original energy of that era [the Sixties] in many ways—as recent news from Seattle also ought to show. In some instructions for the actors of Montana Dreaming, he described some of the ways the Unabomber may have been influenced by the values of the ‘Sixties’. . .”

He makes it clear that he doesn’t really agree with the Unabomber. Well, on some things.

The playwright seems to have a nostalgic hankering for the good old days when radical politics--along with sex, drugs, and rock and roll--filled his life with meaning. Now he’s moved to say that “the almost certain prospect that our contempt for ecology and the environment, combined with unceasing population growth and never-ending industrial and technological expansion, will sooner or later bring this planet and all its inhabitants to a climax totally outstripping the imagination of mere Armageddons by our most rabid fantasists.”

“Montana Dreaming” seems to be a play that holds Montana as some sort of last best place--a refuge from a post-sixties world that did not stop its technological project. Its apocalyptic pessimism tends to justify Kaczynski’s actions, it seems.

Has such a dream brought others here, besides Kaczynski?

I image that if the thesis of this play were brought up for analysis in a typical high school classroom in Montana, the usual positions would be taken quite quickly--with conservative students pointing out the benefits of technology and liberal students championing the care of the environment as a core value. Such a familiar framing of the question would likely lead people to rehearse their familiar positions. It would probably do more harm than good, creating yet another forum for contention without leadig to better ideas. Students easily repeat the opinions of people they admire. They may be vexed when confronted with facts or arguments they can’t really counter, but being vexed doesn’t necessarily lead to better thinking.

It may be more interesting to bring the question down to a local level, and then to list the people most likely to shed light on the question. If the question is, should the people in Lincoln (or Chester, or Libby, or White Sulphur Springs) draw and line and say “no” to further technological and economic development, as some Amish have done, then whose opinions might be most interesting to explore? We might ask, which areas of life make the strongest claim for technological progress? Medicine? Agriculture? Which areas might make the strongest claim for halting the technological project? Conservationists? Some Native Americans?

Once students have created such a list, they can then begin identifying particular people--physicians, farmers experimenting with new cropping techniques, environmental activists, and so on. Then students can interview the various people they’ve identified and report the various points of view, perhaps putting them together in a presentation. The classroom goal would be to accurately represent the various points of view. This would allow students to follow carefully the thinking of the most articulate and well-informed spokespersons in the community, with the charade of classroom “debates”. By approaching the problem as scholars or journalists rather than as activitists or advocates, they would get the space to listen and think.

Debating has always been a rather annoying pedagogical practice, I think, and today’s students who have seen many cable news shows have likely imbibed a toxic notion of debate. Most of these shows parade shameless partisans who incoherently and illogically strive for clever or memorable phrases. Reason and evidence don’t count for much.

We teachers need to slow things down. We need to model thinking. We need to help students ask the basic questions: Who do we need to listen to? What is they are trying to say? What do they offer as evidence? What are the questions we have for them? Do their answers satisfy?

My dream of what Montana could be has everything to do with the sort of life we could make here if we taught our kids to practice such basic habits of intelligence.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/28 at 11:50 AM
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