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A few thoughts on planning an oral history project in China

I just returned from Changsha, China, where I was invited to a conference at Hunan Library to discuss my experiences with dozens of oral history projects in 33 rural communities in Montana, using high schoolers as the primary researchers. The sponsor of the conference was the Evergreen Education Foundation, which has been doing good work in rural China for many years.

Hunan Library

Hunan Library in Changsha, which hosted the conference in partnership with the Evergreen Education Foundation.

I confess I was a bit wary. It had been a while since I attended a conference sponsored by one of the big foundations or socialized with the tribe that gathers there. They tend to be people drawn to the humane slogans of late modernity which have replaced older traditions with a vision that is incomplete and somewhat incoherent. I was both reassured and mildly dismayed at how very familiar it all was—the same talk about more precise assessments, improved monitoring, better implementation and dissemination, and, of course, sustainability. Such technical concerns are always expressed in a framework of humane concerns, having to do with social justice. We are, after all, nice people. Still, to tweak Drucker’s phrase, doing things the right way is often easier than doing the right things.

We have reasons based on experience for being cautious about straying from our accountability rituals. How else could the world be run from the commanding heights? The models are adapted from the corporate world where ambitious people have shown, if nothing else, that they can organize lots of people into vast projects focused on measurable outcomes. It seems appropriate to have mixed feelings about how eagerly newcomers to such conferences are attracted to the bright lights and big names, how quickly they adopt the vocabulary and language of the people on stage. It could be tragic to mislead them.

I easily blended in with the veteran attendees as they shared experiences, enjoyed the buffets, greeted old friends and luxuriated in a reliable sense of deja vu. Lots of nice people. And it did feel nice to be there, invited to a conversation about humane values at a costly hotel where insiders gathered amid chandeliers and wine glasses, comfortable with warm dreams backed by resources. The allure of money—of being invited to the table—can be enchanting.

The real work

Weiming Tu

Weiming Tu, One of the most influential thinkers about China of our time. He is founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Peking University and Senior Fellow of Asia Center at Harvard University.

But will it work? Are we oriented toward the direction where we need to go? One topic that stayed on my mind throughout the conference—a topic that did not get enough attention, I thought–was how to understand governance more powerfully than the business accountability models we’ve all learned. The keynote speaker, Weiming Tu, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Peking University and Senior Fellow of Asia Center at Harvard, spoke to the point, presenting a big picture view of what the real work that we now face may be.

His plea was essentially for better character education—through the classic liberal arts method of aiming at a moral outcome through intellectual means. Right reason will lead to right action. Our current plight, Tu suggested, is that we must regain the wisdom to make choices inspired by desires more intelligent than those inflamed by consumer culture. To so educate desire in China, Confucianism is important. “We need curriculum reform that includes Chinese classical learning in college but also in primary education,” he said. We need to foster a conversation between Enlightenment values and our older spiritual traditions. Though the Enlightenment has been the most powerful ideology in world history—practicing such values as rationality, liberty, equality and the dignity of the individual–and because of it the modern world is better than the pre-modern world, we have now arrived at a point where we see clearly that Enlightenment values alone are not enough. Without powerful spiritual values, a kind of anthropocentricism has emerged wherein reason has become mainly instrumental, aiming not at self-realization but at power. There is something “fundamentally discomforting” about current values, he said, which lead to the dominance of “Economic Man.”

He followed Samuel Huntington in calling for a conversation between Enlightenment values and Confucian values, as well as Christian values and those of other groups, aiming at clarifying principles that can be accepted by members of all religious traditions. The voice of spiritual humanism has become “quite feeble” in China.

If we do not know about invisible worlds–levels of meaning higher than money–and talk about them as though they matter, they will have little force in governing the world we are making. To a great extent, talking about them as though they matter, bringing them up in venues large and small, giving them form that makes them accessible, testifying in favor of them–this in itself may be our salvation. In the West, Socrates taught that we must ask the serious question: “What is the good life?” The good life, as he understood it, is to be forever asking the question again and again, in the light of each new circumstance.

Linking practice to big ideas

Yuelu Academy

Faith Chao, Director of the Evergreen Education Foundation, translated for us during our visit to the ancient Yuela Academy, founded during the Song Dynasty in 976 AD at what is now Hunan University. The Academy remained loyal to Confucian ideals of moral self-cultivation and community solidarity.

Most speakers focused on smaller issues—the practical matters involved in conducting and archiving oral history projects in rural places. Such matters are important and getting more thoughtful and precise about them is fundamentally important. But it would be unfortunate if we let the details distract us from taking Professor Tu seriously, from asking the obvious question: Can our oral history projects provide suitable occasions for the sort of conversations about higher values that, Tu said, we may need if humanity is to survive?

I believe they can.

To make such conversations likely, care may be taken in how the projects begin and how they end. Specifically, the projects should be planned with big questions to be explored–the enduring questions that take us to the heart of our humanity–made clear and explicit at the beginning; they should end with original writing by the researchers in which they grapple with the meaning of their findings with reference to the enduring questions that began their quest. It is not necessary to come to tidy conclusions, like the perfunctory little upbeat platitude that often ends “human interest” stories in small town newspapers, but it is important to ponder the truths of the human condition as they are manifest, sometimes subtly, in the transcripts that are being added to the record of human experience.

Big questions
To begin, enduring questions can be formed by reading significant texts, classic or contemporary, that relate to the topic to be investigated. Good interviewers have spent time gaining the background knowledge they need to ask real questions, and to demonstrate real interest to the interviewee, and gaining that background knowledge and creating a set of questions—both enduring questions to guide the researcher, and more specific questions to ask during the interview—can be done while reading deep and rich texts.

The focus should be on only few enduring questions–maybe three or four. Their purpose is not to limit the interviewing only to those issues that are clearly or directly linked to the big questions. Their purpose is to orient the researchers toward a general direction, which one might well forget at times while engaging the specificity of actual persons living through actual events. The focus, during interviews, should be on bringing as much love as one can bear in one’s attention to the interviewee, really listening and genuinely following his or her thoughts. Love is not often mentioned in how to guides to doing oral history, but it is love that most readily opens a speaker to a hearer, and it is the “secret” of many who excel at asking and listening.

This is not, of course, inconsistent with a quest for light on such questions as these:

What should we part with?
What should we keep?
What should never be for sale?
What should one never do for money?
In recent times, what has been lost or is being lost?
What has been gained or is being gained?
What goods are in conflict?
What has changed?
What has not changed?

Enduring questions serve to focus the interviewer, but they are not questions that usually will be directly asked of the subject, though if the conversation tends that way they may be.

The interviewer should remember that the mental movement from event to meaning can be slow and difficult—and often very personal–and the oral historian or journalist who hopes to avoid the hard work of thought by asking the subject the big question directly will usually be disappointed by the answer, which is most likely to come in the form of either confusion at the impossibility of simple answers to vast queries or vague platitudes and rambling attempts at making sense.

The focus most often should be on the interviewee’s memory and experiences, with an aim of hearing richly detailed narratives or careful descriptions. Few people can address big philosophical questions off the cuff in an articulate way.

Instead, when the interviewer asks open-ended questions that invite the subject to share experiences and think out loud, the interviewer is more likely to be surprised and delighted by the answers. A certain modesty is required. The interviewer should not ask leading questions, even if they are very big leading questions. It may help to keep in mind the observation of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who in his last essay spoke of how “the shattering of larger coherences … has made relating local realities with overarching ones … extremely difficult.” Indeed. “If the general is to be grasped at all,” Geertz wrote, “and new unities uncovered, it must, it seems, be grasped not directly, all at once, but via instances, differences, variations, particulars – piecemeal, case by case. In a splintered world, we must address the splinters.”

Getting at what it means

A highlight of the trip for Valerie and me was a visit to a local middle school, arranged for us by Jingchao Yan--one of Dr. Faith Chao's staff.  We were accompanied by Ruth Olson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A highlight of the trip for Valerie and me was a visit to a local middle school, arranged for us by Jingchao Yan–part of Dr. Faith Chao’s staff. We were accompanied by Ruth Olson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To grasp the general via the particulars—that is the work of essays or presentations that researchers should do as the culmination of their projects, which may be similar to the last chapter of a dissertation—the conclusions and recommendations. Though reflection should have been occurring throughout the work, frequent returns to the enduring questions to check how one’s understanding has changed or deepened, it is in synthesizing all one’s work into a final intellectual product or cultural artifact that reflection becomes the main work. If a student has read some Confucius on the duties of children, and then conducted an oral interview where a person talked about her particular family during a tumultuous time in the past, the attempt to write an accurate and truthful account of what happened and what it might mean will be time spent pondering what really matters in this life. Perhaps the Great Foundations could do worse than give such documents careful attention when the time comes to evaluate what has been accomplished.

In doing such work, might we be also teaching our young that the art of living is in part the art of ordering one’s life as a series of research projects, with “research” understood as the process of seeking information, knowledge and wisdom in many intellectual and spiritual modes, from various sources. Confucius understood that the way to govern a people well is first to teach them to govern themselves by wise principles. Christians also believe this.

It’s everyone’s story
Another thing that was on my mind was how a project in Montana might collaborate with a project in China. One way that comes to mind is simply to begin with the same, or similar, enduring questions. I suspect that we would find many things in common—and not just in the experiences of minorities. It would be one way of having a conversation across cultures about core values that we share.

It isn’t just indigenous people whose culture is being hollowed out or trammeled by the peddlers and prophets of late modernity. All of us who remain disinclined to live mainly for money or whose souls are not transfixed by Apple’s latest wonder sense that things are being pushed aside to make way for things of less worth. Any Confucian or Christian is likely to experience moments, sometimes important moments, when one’s deepest commitments are taken as nothing by market zealots or crusading ideologues. The displacement of Native Americans due to the faith that powerful men at their big tables had in their own wisdom, in their certainty that everyone’s duty comes down to assimilation to technological innovation and expanding markets is, I think, one of those historical occurrences that resonates for many of us. It’s a timeless metaphor. In typological terms, it is everyone’s story.

The twentieth century happened to us all.

Love and death at the Heartbreak Hotel

This is an article I published in Teacher Magazine (under the title “Mission Possible”) some years ago.  I was reminded of it while reading this piece by Jill Jenkins.

20140627_-StIgnatiusTown_1603cropBeyond the Classroom Windows

After the shooting, I asked people about Abel, but nobody knew much. He took his dog with him everywhere he went, a mongrel that looked to be part border collie. He worked at the school for a while, filling in on temporary jobs. His dog followed him through the building, waiting patientlly while Abel scraped paint off the stage floor or put new paint on a door. When I tried to call up an image of him, I drew a blank. He’d been invisible to me.

My classes at school were full of students who came from a world more like Abel’s than like those of their middle-class teachers. The intelligence of orderly families embedded in an orderly tribe had been weakened a century before when proud hunters lost their way and became unimportant in the economic life of folks restricted to a reservation. Many Salish men turned to alcohol. Many children grew up without parents at all, in boarding schools.

Abel lived in a rented room on the top floor of the Mission Hotel. That was its official name. People who lived there were having a hard time of it, and they called it the Heartbreak Hotel.

When it was built early in the century, it had been the largest building in town, except for the brick church at the Jesuit Mission. The hotel was three stories tall, square and vertical. The builders made no attempt to blend it into its surroundings. It had that erect Victorian readiness to impose its grandeur, like a man in white spats refusing to acknowledge muddy streets.

Unfortunately, St. Ignatius never lived up to expectations. People who came seldom had money for lodging. They stayed with relatives or friends. By the time I became director of the valley’s volunteer ambulance, the hotel had become a low rent apartment. It was just up the hill from the bridge across Mission Creek. In his book The Triggering Town the poet Richard Hugo discusses revision using a poem about boys throwing a dog off that bridge. “Can you imagine the intellectual poverty of living in a place like St. Ignatius?” he asked once in a workshop. It made me laugh, but it also made me wonder, “Could I?”

One evening just before Christmas, Abel closed his door and began drinking. A little past midnight, the tenants next door heard a gunshot, then voices, then another gunshot. They called 911. The town cop followed a county deputy as he unholstered his .44 and stepped into the back door of the hotel. He worked his way slowly up the narrow stairs, freezing at each creek, studying each doorway, holding his gun ready.

When the officers reached the third floor, they stepped into the bathroom across the banister from Abel’s room. “Abel, this is the police,” the county deputy called loudly. “What’s going on?”

Silence. Then the door opened. Suddenly the hall exploded with the roar of gunfire. The deputy shot back.

The silence continued roaring for minutes after the shots. The air smelled of powder. A man was dead.

I arrived a few minutes later. I used scissors to bare Abel’s chest, being careful not to cut through the bullet holes, which the crime lab would want intact. I listened through the stethoscope to nothing. Then I closed his fixed, lightless eyes.

I walked back into the hall where a growing crowd of police officers was gathering from all over the county, with cameras, tape measures, and memo pads. The scene needed to be left intact–shell casings where they had fallen, Abel’s empty pistol where he had dropped it.

“He’s dead,” I said to the officers. I walked downstairs, slipped through the crowd that had gathered outside. Many of them were children. I got into the ambulance, which I’d left running with the heater on. It was warm and four other crew members were there. They had waited to see if I needed help because the police wanted to minimize traffic inside. Nobody felt like talking.

Our Habits become our Habitat

When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I thought about Abel’s apartment. His habitat had been small, cluttered, disorderly–like his life. So it is with us all–our habitat is made of our habits. We develop habits, our second nature, and these habits create an environment. For teachers, the important point is that which habits we get, like which language we speak, depends on those around us. If we are surrounded by intelligent folk who practice all the little habits that encourage happiness, we tend to become more intelligent ourselves. We get up in the morning, put things away, brush our teeth. If we are especially fortunate, we grow up among folk who practice the harder habits of kindness, reliability, cheerfulness, diligence, and honesty.

Most teachers learn quickly the astonishing power family habits have over children. Of course, everyone who grows up surrounded by an order where such habits as patience and compassion are practiced and taught doesn’t automatically learn them. That would be too easy, too destructive of our freedom. But it’s just as true that children who live every day with harshness, fickleness, pessimism, and rage would have to be unusually gifted to see past these to something better.

A few nights before Abel was killed, a man down the street had jerked his former wife’s arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder. While the police cuffed him and put him in their car, we loaded her on our cot to take her to the hospital. He arched his back in the gentle night air, proud and unsubmissive, a warrior, his head thrown back and his long hair free in the red glare of light, his wrists bound but his spirit wild.

His woman sat on the couch crying. Three children–the youngest was about six and the oldest about ten–begged to go with us, excited by all the commotion. The man and the woman yelled at each other about a set of keys, which he said were for his car and she said were for her trailer. It was Tuesday. If the kids were at school in the morning which was only five or six hours away, I doubted they would be with teachers who knew much about their lives.

What those kids need, more than information, is an invitation to join a community, a moral order, enacted and clarified daily by adults who, with full knowledge of how the world goes wrong, stay committed nonetheless to making things right.

Thinking about Folkways

In 1906, William Graham Sumner in his seminal work Folkways said what I was learning through experience eighty some years later: “The education which forms character and produces faith in sound principles of life. . .is borne on the mores. It is taken in from the habits and atmosphere of the school, not from the school text-books.”

He further noted that though “we apply schooling as a remedy for every social phenomenon which we do not like,” the efficacy of information to change behavior is only “the superstition of education.” In fact, “book learning is addressed to the intellect, not to the feelings, but the feelings are the spring of action.”

Though “folkways” is usually used as a benign term to refer to such activities as quilting or fiddle-playing or dancing, Sumner uses it to refer to the traditions by which a society shapes its people, and in addition to celebrations and arts he also examines as examples of folklife such institutions as slavery, infanticide, torture, harlotry, and gladiator sports. He reminds us of the sheer educative power of what we celebrate, tolerate, pursue and repeat.

The ordinary stories that people tell along the way to all else they do exert a tremendous shaping influence on people. The way this happens can be deceptively simple. Here’s Bud Cheff, Sr., a seventy-eight-year-old rancher from the Mission Valley in western Montana, chatting about his early life:

Whenever Adelle and I went somewhere, or when we were returning home, I always put the money I had left into a big jar I kept buried. When I got a chance to buy the land where the ranch now sits, I dug out my money cache, and got out the jug that I had buried. I poured it all out on a tarp and counted it; I had just enough money to pay cash for that piece of land, 160 acres. There were pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollar bills, five, ten and twenty dollar bills.

I went into the house and had Adelle and all the kids come out to my shed to see what I had on my tarp, and they all just stared at it. Adelle knew I’d been saving money, but had no idea it amounted to that much and the kids were so excited because they had never seen that much money at one time. I let them each take a handful of small change and then I gathered it up, went to the courthouse in Polson, and paid for my land.

I can testify from personal experience that a person who listens to this man tell his ordinary stories about raising a family and building a ranch will feel tugs of desire to become a better person: to laugh more, work harder, have more friends. Children who grow up immersed in such everyday narratives probably do not notice the effortless way they encode a host of values–in this example, perseverance, postponement of gratification, affection for spouse and children, delight in the chance to struggle for a dream. It is through such stories that young people learn what the rules of life are, what roles are available to them, how to react to crises, what is worth wanting. In a way that comes to them so naturally it’s easy to miss seeing, they learn all the little secrets of being human. It is at this level of daily narrating, which goes on among us without pause, that a people shapes its morality and that of the next generation.

Through the folkways, Sumner points out, a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes. . .the most essential and important education.”

Many schools today, reflecting community mores, are becoming scenes of increasing moral disorder. When I finished a presentation at a recent education conference, a teacher came to me crying. Only a couple of months before, a student had come to her middle school in a small rural community in Washington, and shot and killed a teacher and two other students. Such stories are no longer rare. Though the notion that we respond to depression or anger by getting gun and shooting people is probably taught by movies and song lyrics more often than by families and communities, its is inescapable that our schools now serve thousands of young people who have been left to find their mores in media culture.

The Schools We’ve Built

What do such youth learn when they get to school? Many teachers and administrators have had their own mores shaped within impersonal bureaucracies where the folkways that develop tend to support the success ethic. Even in the absence of corruption (which is rarely absent), our work in large organizations by its very division into small pieces tends to frustrate our hopes and divide us from our fellows, creating an environment where self-interest flourishes. Self-interest is often followed by selfishness, which is always followed by pessimism. As workers become adept at hearing information at the scale of their specialty and at filtering out other information, what makes us powerful, our ability to organize, ironically also deafens us to what we would better hear.

For example, the superintendent of a school district who is doing her job often thinks in time frames of years or decades, trying to hear the slow-moving information of demographic shifts and legislative trends that will change enrollments and budgets and community expectations, monitoring the deterioration of buildings and buses, anticipating shifts in social values. Though the superintendent might be aware that a particular teacher is weak, she’s probably more interested in changing hiring practices or training programs than she is in changing that one teacher’s performance this afternoon.

A good teacher, on the other hand, will tend to be more attentive to faster-moving information, such as what happened with a particular student this morning and what adjustments the staff can make this week.

Though both the superintendent and the teacher may share the same ultimate goals which require each of them to do their part at their level, when they meet to discuss problems, they sometimes don’t quite hear one another. Too often, they even feel pitted against one another. It becomes easy to become cyncial, looking out for one’s own best interests. It becomes easy, without constant refreshing at the springs of shared hope and constant reminders of the virtues we need to practice to realize those hopes, for self-interested careerism to prevail over shared community purpose and the striving for moral clarity. Unconstrained careerism is simply old-fashioned lust dressed up in the fashion of our age.

For the dedicated careerist, there is little to resist sliding into other forms of self-indulgence, and it should a frightening fact that many citizens of the modern age have become, like Romans of the late empire who craved ever bloodier arena sports, addicts of the wares of corporate entertainers who lace their products with lusts more toxic than nicotine. By adopting savage entertainments into their folkways, the Romans transformed themselves into a people who took their greatest pleasure in watching pain and bloodshed. Children amused themselves by torturing animals. The planet was ransacked for beasts that were allowed to tear apart convicts or slaves for Sunday entertainment. Forms of human torture to amuse the masses became ever more ingenious and perverse.

Though for us such entertainments are most often “only” simulated by movie companies rather than happening in actuality, to the human imagination such a distinction matters little. As the Vandals began detroying Carthage, the cries of those being slaughtered in the streets mingled with the cries of victims in the arena. The death throes of a civilization became indistinguishable from its entertainments. In some American cities today, the carnage that awaits theater audiences inside is not much different than what may be witnessed at any instant on the streets outside.

We already have among us thousands of young people who are more entertained than horrified by films of the Holocaust shown to them by teachers who, desperately, still believe that such scenes have to be horrifying. We no longer need to guess where it leads. We can read about it in the paper nearly every week.

Living in Possible Worlds

Despite the problems teachers face today one thing that never changes is that the best teaching remains committed not simply to preparing young people for the world that surrounds them, but to bringing better worlds into being. To do that, the best teachers must be willing to live by the rules of a world that could be and ought to be rather than by the rules of the world as it is. Though contemporary debates about goodness often descend into arguments about jurisdiction—which groups will control the debate—our only hope for unity nonetheless lies in the possibility that each one of us, from whatever cultural or ethnic group, can conclude that some things are good, and that we can refresh and rejuvenate our folkways and build into our ways of living what Sumner called “monuments, festivals, mottoes, oratory, and poetry” that teach that it’s good to help other folks get something they need, that it’s good to be moved by the plight of our neighbors, that it’s good to be gentle, and that it’s good to practice the patience and selflessness necessary to have friends.

The alternative is moral anarchy, in which, Sumner warns us, we can all lose our way. When all stories have equal legitimacy, people’s “notions, desires, purposes, and means become untrue.” Only the willfully blind don’t see that large groups of people today are moving into such a condition. Much of popular culture seems intent on fostering cultural suicide. Without vision, the people perish.

If we don’t like where we are headed, the solution, open to any of us, is to change directions. We can identify and act on “correct notions of virtue” in matters big and small, making them our habits. We can, for example, refuse to attend “R” movies, we can give money to agencies that help the poor, we can be honest in paying our taxes. People who take such actions soon see that it is the “only success policy.” They soon find themselves becoming more prosperous or less anxioius, soon find their towns becoming beautiful and safe, find their farmlands becoming bountiful and sustainable. A few such people can create a community that neglected children can join.

Fortunately for my little town, the Salish culture was never completely destroyed. Though the tribe has its share of politicians who have learned from oppression to imitate the oppressors in ruthless and dishonest pursuit of wealth and power, it also has a large number of quiet folk who have struggled for years to keep alive their belief in a better way. In recent years, some tribal leaders have emerged strong from their long history of hardship. More or less ignoring those leaders who are too bitter and distrustful to move forward, they are rebuilding a living moral order, and they are reaching out to lost children to join a real community, to remember better ways. Though they face enormous problems, their faith is strong. Teachers can learn much from them.

They know that when we’ve strayed from a good path, our lives often take on a momentum that carries us father than we meant to go. It becomes harder and harder to believe we can stop or go back. We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught, and we need to be given courage more often than we need to be given information.

Twenty minutes after I got home from examining Abel, my radio went off again. Mission Ambulance, please return to the Mission Hotel. An officer is down.

When I got there, the deputy who had shot Abel was writhing on the floor, gasping for air. His forehead glistened with sweat. He had trouble hearing or answering questions. His hands and feet were numb. He felt sharp pains in his chest.

Hyperventilation. It begins when a person breathes too quickly, but the feeling is that he can’t get enough air. The faster he breathes, the more he feels air hunger. It’s a common pattern in our lives: we do the wrong thing, and the more we do it the worse things get and the more we feel we need to keep doing it. It was a pattern Abel knew.

A good coach can help, standing outside the problem, staying calm, reminding the person of what he knows but, at the moment, feels wrong. It’s as simple as standing close to the person, speaking into his ear, convincing him that he can breathe normally, reminding him how to do it. It is possible for one person to infect another with calm, with faith, and maybe even with goodness.

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and lose faith that our small contributions will make enough difference. One spring after being caught up in a particularly nasty and futile political war, I visited a lake in the Mission Mountains. It was a calm day, and I tossed a rock into the water, then watched. I followed the ripples as far as I could. Eventually, at the edge of my eyesight, the ripples merged into riffles caused by wind and other disturbances, becoming part of an endless dance. It was a half-hour before I lost completely the pattern of my stone amid the endlessly changing patterns of the lake’s surface.

I lost sight of it, but I never saw it stop.

Beyond Good and Evil

The mobs posing with their victims after lynchings do not seem aware that they are engaged in evil. They seem proud of themselves. Most people need to see themselves as acting righteously before they engage in evil. In fact, destroying evil is the most common rationale for engaging in evil. Unfortunately, since evil remains nonetheless real, a bland nonjudgmentalism isn't a strong enough defense against it.

The mobs posing with their victims after lynchings do not seem aware that they are engaged in evil. They seem proud of themselves. Most people need to see themselves as acting righteously before they engage in evil. In fact, destroying evil is the most common rationale for engaging in evil. Unfortunately, since evil remains nonetheless real, a bland nonjudgmentalism isn’t a strong enough defense against it.

Years ago I did a small study of lynchings in America, after watching a small town work through some shabby political convulsions. At the time, I still believed it was within our reach for democracies to be governed by reason. One thing that struck me as I looked through old documents was attitudes of mob members in posed photos with their dead victims. The people often seem quite proud of themselves, puffed up with feelings of righteousness. They do not exhibit any sense that they are engaged in evil. Quite the contrary—they seem certain that they are engaged in the destruction of evil. Having heard rumors about the wrong-doing of the victims, getting caught up in the passion of “setting things right,” the mobs were all in with evil.

We will never figure out the mess we are in without understanding such moral inversions. Such an inversion is one of the themes of Huckleberry Finn. Twain said of the novel that it was “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” What Twain calls Huck’s conscience is his conventional sense of right and wrong received from both the formal and informal teaching of the society he grew up in. Growing up in the South before the Civil War, Huck has been taught that slavery is right and proper, and that he has an obligation to return Jim, a runaway slave, to Miss Watson, Jim’s rightful owner. When Huck hears Jim making plans to free the rest of his family once he is out of slavery, Huck is attacked by pangs of guilt:

Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he WAS most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, ME. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so—I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched.

Huck decides to “go to hell” for his friend, and he allows his moral sense to trump his conscience, but he never manages to critique the conventional wisdom of his society, to see that the moral code it has adopted is objectively wrong.

Hannah Arendt saw something quite similar but even more ominous while watching the trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Like Huck, Eichmann has no sense of doing wrong. But unlike Huck, Eichmann suffers no cognitive dissonance. He is not tortured by a conflict between society’s abstract laws and the concrete suffering of a particular person. Arendt is struck by the Eichmann’s inability or unwillingness to think about what he is doing. He has allowed the social bureaucracy he works in to settle questions of right and wrong, and he only repeats the slogans and rationales without question—indeed, without discernible intelligence.

She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to evoke the way that stupidity might be enough of an explanation for the engagement in evil of bureaucrats operating in systems that define good as evil and evil as good. It would be comforting to learn that Eichmann was demonic, delighting in darkness. It’s troubling to see him as ordinary, feeling that he was taking the wise and prudent steps to succeed, to make a name for himself, pleasing his peers and superiors. He thinks entirely in cliches and the “official language” through which bureaucrats murdered people without ever mentioning it. He contradicts himself from moment to moment without apparent awareness of the clear import of what he says, caught up in whatever words help him feel okay about himself and with no effort at getting to truth, by looking for coherence, by assessing statements in the light of our experience. He is content to obey the law. He may be operating within a morally inverted universe, but he still uses the language of morality, and he can even quote Kant and discuss, somewhat confusedly, “the categorical imperative.”

Orwell saw the close relationship between the corruption of language and the success of evil in the 1940s. It was an ancient insight even then. “If language is not correct,” Confucius had said, “then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” Such insight have been common among the wise of every generation.

And yet the folly continues and gets worse. Ours is the first civilization in history to attempt to get by without a basis in shared morality. It was, after all, theories of good and evil that undergirded the great atrocities in history. Wouldn’t we be better off to abandon the moral certainties and instead adopt a somewhat passionless lack of anything but toleration? The experiment has been underway for some decades now. We now live in the age of ideology, in which for many good and evil are social constructs we should leave behind.

A team of sociologists from Notre Dame who studied the moral lives young adults in America a few years ago were troubled by much of what they found. What had been abandoned included “epistemological foundations, certainty, reason, universalism” and what had been embraced included “uncertainty, difference, fluidity, ambiguity, multivocality, self-construction, changing identities, particularity, historical finitude, localism, audience reception, perspectivalism” and so forth. They discovered that the culture had become “democratized and vulgarized” with “simplified versions of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida” everywhere evident. “By the time it reached the American hoi polloi, postmodernism had become a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individualistic subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism.”

People who don’t believe in fundamental truths do not become great critical thinkers. If there is no moral truth, what would be the point of unmasking fundamental assumptions? “Who am I to judge?” asked one of the young research subjects.”I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at that time.” He’s unwilling to say that slavery is evil. Such a judgment would be wrong, he feels. He thinks, unclearly, in the cliches he’s been given.

Moral thinking is a conundrum for many of today’s youth. Nothing, it seems, can be known. Another young person discussed terrorism like this: “I don’t know that people, like terrorists, what they do? It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good. I had this discussion with a friend recently and she’s like, ‘But they’re still murdering tons of people, that just has to be wrong.’ And I was like, ‘But do we have any idea if it is actually wrong to murder tons of people?’ Like what does that even mean?”

We are far enough into our civilizational experiment to see something of where it leads. Our better artists have been providing help. Terrence Malick portrayed in his powerful 1973 film Badlands a couple of banal killers. The film follows the career of a young man given to senseless murders, off on an adventure with the girl next door, both of whom are reminiscent of Eichmann in their careless and self-centered way, “going with” whatever cliches or songs or other flotsam drift through their weakly ordered minds:

Like Eichmann, they are less demonic than stupid—though what they do remains evil, for those of us still engaged with what is real.

The cinematography is gorgeous and the music is hauntingly beautiful. Caught up in the aesthetics of moments, the quite postmodern lovers drift through an often pleasant fantasy, neither tortured by conscience nor concerned with the law, somewhere beyond good and evil.

Ideology and dogmatism in the school reform movement

"We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it:  ideologies are finished.  Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it.  Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation.  These people are very serious;  but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn't mean they know what is right. . . ." —Eric Voegelin

“We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it: ideologies are finished. Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it. Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation. These people are very serious; but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn’t mean they know what is right. . . .” —Eric Voegelin

Much of teaching can be quite routine because both the material and the sorts of difficulties commonly encountered by people new to the material are familiar. But if the classroom is not to become merely another spiritual desert in the institutionalized existence of children born to late modernity, the teacher needs to maintain an openness both to the material and to the students. In the classroom, the language through which curricular knowledge lives combines with the minds of students to constitute a field of experience in which the teacher must act as a participant if he is not to rigidify and die, hardening into a mere enforcer of a system.

Symptoms of such a death include the repetition of linguistic formulas in response to questions, the assertion of bland moralisms by way of escaping uncomfortable facts, and the inability to provide concrete illustrations of whatever he is talking about and talking about and talking about. Dogmatism and refusals of the Question are the hallmarks of ideological systems, which are never true but always opposed to truth.

All our systems are wrong, to the extent that they obscure reality by erecting between us and the real world a second reality of language, routinely protected by interdictions on the asking of questions. Nearly all school reform programs are, of course, such systems.  Schooling in the age of reform has made both the life of the mind and the life of the spirit increasingly difficult, and we have few public forums where people can discuss education at the level of reality.  A staff that has been sufficiently cowed into unreality will, at the end of enervating hour or two of what is called professional development, have no questions. Institutions governed by ideology do not entertain questions aimed at the premises or the telos. Experienced practitioners recognize this and suffer the scotosis in silence.

The school change industry recruits participants who yearn to be a stars in the professional society which their studies or their position have opened for them. The usual panoply of goods is available to those who are willing to play: travel for conferences and site visits, release from mundane chores to sit at the big table, public praise, professional opportunities. Successful school reform leaders and consultants often have a fascination with conceptual schemes, and they mistake their ability to become fluent in such schemes for a grasp on reality.

As they master a second reality—the linguistic machine that underlies the reform plan—their sense of truth begins to shift and deform. Instead of accurate representations of the situations that practitioners actually face, they begin to judge as true those statements that are coherent with the conceptual scheme they have adopted. It can take considerable cognitive power to master complex conceptual schemes, such as Marxism or positivism, and some consultants find real intellectual pleasure in knowing their complicated things and in putting their knowledge on display.

Still, dogmatism is a formidable obstacle to anyone looking for truth and it is also the eternal enemy of teaching and learning.

Badlands: life sans religion, sans philosophy

Dakota Badlands

Kit and Holly enact a fairy tale made entirely of cliches and self-approval. They are anti-heroes of the American type.

Terrence Malick’s Badlands works as a period piece for that post-Vietnam time of self-absorption and loss of moral clarity that also gave us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. But it’s not just a period piece—Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis are somewhat timeless in their possession by unfocused, impulsive desires that attach to people and events in the kaleidoscope moments of a journey from unclear beginning to unknown terminus, and they “think” about what is happening and what they are doing entirely by repeating slogans and catch phrases they’ve picked up from the cultural milieu around them. In other words, they are quite like many people you know.

Most of what they say has a self-forgiving quality; their parallel monologues form a series of incoherent verbal gestures that help them feel good about themselves. As they bounce from murder to murder, they continue believing they are “good” people, though they are not. They are very bad people. They are bundles of appetites, no better (or much different) than snakes swallowing live mice. People are endowed with a moral sense. They should develop it.

Simple people may be saved by a good heart, as with Forrest Gump. But desire is not wise or good, for most of us, without some education and discipline. More and more of us get our moral education from our folkways, and our folkways are becoming increasingly toxic for inarticulate people with inarticulate desires. Holly and Kit never have thoughts, properly speaking.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” said Holly. “Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment?” Her thinking never becomes more precise or more clear. “Kit never let on why he’d shot Cato. He said that just talking about it could bring us bad luck and that right now, we needed all the luck we could get.” That’s her “reflection” after one murder. About the next one, she observes: “He claimed that as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses. You had to take the consequences, though, and not whine about it later. He never seemed like a violent person before, except for once, when he said he’d like to rub out a couple of guys whose names he didn’t care to mention. It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know him at the same time.”

As for Kit, he segues from event to event, narrating his own story entirely in cliches and banalities. “Of course, uh, too bad about your dad. . .I can’t deny we’ve had fun though. . .it takes all kinds.” Nothing important can ever happen to him. He’s incapable of it.

Their moral sense has shrunk to effortless recitals of rationalizations—instead, they view life in aesthetic terms. Holly rejects the outlaw life because the wilderness is void of bright lights and pleasant food. Kit beams with a self-satisfied feeling of success when the officers escorting him to prison observe that he looks like James Dean.

The film endures because Malick is right about important things. He’s right about the woeful state of people whose minds are not enlivened by religion or enlightened by philosophy–in his stories, stupidity and evil are often kindred conditions. Malick’s films are frequently hideous, in precisely the way life among the folk is sometimes hideous.

Noah: a tawdry bit of pretention

Russell Crowe as Noah

The film is an unimportant and uninteresting little story–a sort of anti-Jehovah propaganda piece blown up to pretentious scale by its grandiose budget.

One needn’t be particularly sensitive to notice that Aronofsky’s Noah is a dark story involving unlovely people in a desolate world. Russell Crowe plays Noah as a somewhat dull action hero, ready to brawl and knock heads–and for quite a while intent on murdering his own grandchildren. It’s not much of a story–neither interesting or ennobling.

No benevolent deity intent on bringing to pass an orderly world founded on love presides over this mess. Instead, the only deity in the story is a vengeful and sulking “Creator”–somewhat in the image of the hateful and lusty humans–who performs no miracles but offers instead magic tricks–such as encasing fallen angels in grotesque bodies of misshapen volcanic stone.

It’s a tawdry tale made of money and angst, but lacking in spiritual insight–or even much in the way of worldly wisdom. Brian Mattson gives a likely explanation for this unlikely disaster.

This is an age drawn toward apocalyptic stories, but for my money Walking Dead has a more interesting plot, deeper exploration of the human condition, more spiritual longing, and nicer people.

The journey to here

Calliope Mikulecky uses spring break to dig razor clams on Puget Sound–far from the fluorescent hallways and endless tasks of school. Photo by Shannon McGinnis.

A week in spring free from the job means, for me, catching up with garden tasks before the explosive growth of May and June overwhelms me. I work among prosperous people, some of them, so I hear of their travel plans. I admit that time on a tropical beach sounds alluring. But I also know that what we yearn to encounter by traveling everywhere, by indulging in restless thousand-mile weekends, may be more elusive than a plane ticket to Maui–and more accessible than a million distractions streaming to a million devices.

One of the more liberating things I’ve learned from travel came clear to me one morning at the twin lakes atop Mollman Pass in the Mission Mountains. It was only a few miles from home, and we’d hiked up to the pass in the Mission Range the day before–the ridge from which we could see the Swan Range to the east, and pitched our tents. When dawn arrived I got up, somewhat ecstatic with the sense of ease and freedom one easily finds in the back country. It’s a form of being rich–having time to lavish on life’s gorgeous details.

Here were no tasks or unfinished projects–no repairs to be made or messes to organize or messages to answer. A red-tailed hawk circled the sky between peaks and feeding trout dimpled the lake. The fast-changing light cascaded over glaciers and canyons . Fresh tracks of goats, rabbits, and a grizzly in the mud around a small spring hinted at how little I could see of where I was and what was happening. I spent an hour before breakfast standing on a cliff, climbing to little perches for a better view, sitting beside the rippling water, watching, savoring the breezes on my skin amid the soft rustle of Creation.

It occurred to me that most of what I was observing could be experienced in my own yard along Mission Creek down in the valley. What I was enjoying most about my little excursion was not the earth and sky, which were never far away, but my attention, which is to say my consciousness, devoted to sensing the moment.

I know by long experience now that what I’m seeking has more to do with waking up a little more than with any exotic quality of the location where I find myself. Yesterday morning I spent removing  peony cages from crinkly brown remnants of last summer’s peonies, removing starts of quack grass and bindweed with a single-tined finger hoe, then replacing the cages. As I worked, I paused to watch juncos, house finches, goldfinches, robins and chickadees, drawn by the millet I’d spread on the ground.

Gardening when one isn’t anxious about hunger can be mainly a contemplative act, involving, as Virgil knew, keen attention to heaven’s indulgence:

Nor would the stress
Of life be bearable for tender things
Did not so long a respite come between
The cold and heat, and heaven’s indulgence grant
This comfort to the world.

Giving all one’s attention to a place on earth one knows well–paying attention with ears, nose, skin, and soul–is a fine way to spend an April morning. Life courses in fresh torrents around and through us, and inexhaustible energy flows in our veins as we turn to all the rows of our lives, at home.

Is justice present, or forever becoming?

scales of justice

Justice is not something that is simply present. It is not calculable as being here, now, to precisely this degree. If we think of something that exists as something that is present, and present to a calculable degree, then I’m afraid the bad news, at least from Derrida, is that justice does not exist. -Peter Blum

Peter Blum’s view of deconstruction makes of it something like the move I make with my “anti-ideological” arguments: reality is more complex than any of our theories of it, and people who cannot escape their own theories when faced with actual events make mistakes. Sometimes horrendous mistakes. He quotes Terry Eagleton, discussing the way reality always partially escapes our renditions of it:

Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. It seizes on the out-of-place element in a system, and uses it to show how the system is never quite as stable as it imagines. There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic.

Judging, of the sort Christ chastised the authorities for neglecting, is not simply applying a universal law. Our universals oversimplify. Loving attention to the particulars is part of finding the right way.

By the dim and flaring lamps

The fiercely free individual is nothing against the vast forces of modernity. Nostalgia is weak against what is here and what is coming.

The fiercely free individual is nothing against the vast forces of modernity. Nostalgia is weak against what is here and what is coming.

Savannah depicts a nostalgic and weak reaction against the principalities and powers that mostly rule the world. Ward Allen leaves the position and status he inherited to make a free life as a market hunter, but he doesn’t succeed. He achieves a sort of eccentricity and notoriety, but freedom eludes him.

The film has a beauty. I agree with Stephen Klugewicz that we “rightly revel in its broad and beautiful cinematic brushstrokes: its scene painting of the joys of the bucolic way of life, its depiction of the formative power of the past, its idealization of the thoroughly non-modern man. ‘Maybe we are here to remake everything, reshape everything, create our own new idea of perfection and leave God’s idea to the dim shades of history,’ Allen declares during one courtroom appearance. ‘And maybe I, having fought against that new idea, rejected that idea, found that idea abhorrent, maybe I was wrong. But I do not think so.’” It does, as Klugewicz suggests, warm the heart.

The film brought to my mind the Southern Agrarians and their reactionary manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. It was a book brought to my attention by John Baden when I met him in his home near Gallatin Gateway, on one of my forays through Montana in search of a better conversation. The book is a collection of essays by something of a literary tribe, who understood their plight in terms of the loss of their Southern identity amid the displacements of “northern industrialism.” The Lost Cause was a conversation about being somebody in some place. Dixie was a place, unlike the trampling out the vintage, which was an abstraction. They sided with Thetis and against her son Achilles, that his shield should have borne the images of “White flower-garlanded heifers” and “athletes at their games” rather than nameless, faceless players acting their assigned roles. We should be thoughtful about what we fight for. Theirs was an ambiguous movement jousting ineffectually at the thousand tentacles of modernity. That book, too, has an air of nostalgia about it.

In Savannah, Ward Allen resists game laws and developments that drain the wild out of his river, leaving individuals amid places dying into nameless processes. “This is real,” he says to his wife, when he finally takes her to one of his sacred places, though by then it is too late. Many will sympathize with him. We see the soulless machinery of international financial conspiracy subject us all to corrupt law, we know something of the flattening education the Capitol favors, where young people “engage” in literacy tasks organized around reading passages nearly void of meaning, practicing the bland skills that might provide a paycheck in the institutional hallways and cubicles that await them out there. We sense that in the world they are making, there really is no place for us, and if we are not young, we know that the simulacrum offers no satisfying alternative.

Ward Allen does not know what to do, and his action at the end of the story has more to do with giving up than with finding a way. It is a film filled with beauty, evoking what is being lost. I would have liked him to say more about what he understood about God’s idea. Lesser topics may serve no good.

The local always includes the global (in ways ideologues may not grasp)

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs "work" (or don't work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about--and may not know that they do not know.

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs “work” (or don’t work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about–and may not know that they do not know.

I’ve worked on encouraging local studies at the secondary level for years. In thinking about a label for our work, I finally decided on “community-centered” since the real work has to do with slipping out of ideological abstractions to include the actual as we can only experience it locally–using community in a broad sense to include plants and animals as well as persons and families–in whatever universal and global phenomena we examine.

Over on Front Porch, Charles Carman contemplates the difficulty of separating local concerns from global concerns:

The problem with emphasizing localism over globalism is that this emphasis is harder to prescribe than it is to identify in our own experience. Understanding localism primarily as against globalism does not define localism (or globalism). Living locally cannot not mean joining a tribe, completely isolated from the outside world. Local and global are permeated by each other. Every town is local and global. Coffee is not local to anywhere in the lower forty-eight, even if the coffee shop is. Consider a trader on the New York Stock Exchange. His job is the global markets and yet he knows when to tip his favorite bartender generously. He spends much on the local economy. He has small talk at his favorite halal cart, knows his tailor by name. He changes the price of aluminum in Europe in the morning and asks for the usual in the evening. Granted, a city in Idaho does not have a community of stock brokers, but more likely a community of farmers. Nonetheless, whether a place is a port city or Midwest town, it participates in varying degrees of global and local integration. And however localism is understood, surely it is must be hospitable to the stranger.

The local always includes the national and global, but those who think about the national or global do not always manage to consider the local. Their thought and their ideas are dangerously incomplete. A simple test for experts: ask them to translate their thoughts into particular, concrete illustrations. Someone who understands something deeply and thoroughly knows how it appears at a conceptual level, but also what it looks at the local level–which is to say, in the actual world inhabited by practitioners.