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The way of the teacher, Part 1

Imposters are all around us. We learn to recognize them by first becoming familiar with things as they really are.

Imposters are all around us. We learn to recognize them by first becoming familiar with things as they really are.

My guiding vision when I was a high school principal was that a school educated most effectively by how it operated. The daily conduct of a school’s business—staff evaluations, student discipline, the creation and implementation of board and administrative policies—was its most authentic teaching about how reasonable adults might live out their understanding of the fire they stole from history and literature.

When we make decisions, especially about how to deal with trouble or bad behavior, we can’t avoid revealing our core values. As with characters in a novel, every action we take reveals something about our character (at the same time it forms that character). To the chagrin of imposters, some kids read us quite well. They see what we do and know who we are.

So it is that a mindful school intentionally aligns the curriculum taught in classrooms with the board policies, the student handbook, and the day-to-day decision-making that gives the institution its character.

Obviously, operating a coherent school devoted to teaching enduring principles of human conduct requires leadership that is wise. It should also be obvious that the alternative is incoherence, unless the authorities suppress the teaching of great literature and true history (which happens albeit most often in subtle ways).

Suppose students study “Hamlet” in the classroom and gain a glimmer of insight into the trouble we find in places infected with seeming and posturing. The prince learns, here a little and there a little, that the people around him (except Horatio) are pretending and dissembling. Because the truth is hidden, he cannot find what he needs to know if he is to see that justice is done. The play suggests that where lying is tolerated bad people thrive and good people are stymied. The linkage between truth and justice has been understood since ancient times, though that linkage is vanishing from popular thought and many young people have never encountered it in imagination, so they cannot see it in their own experience.

Shakespeare crafted an intricate story about a young man experiencing evil, manifest in the wheels within wheels of political plotting and social game playing of a typical human society. What are students to think if they leave the classroom analysis of the play and see, here a little and there a little, adults treating problems as public relations crises that call for techniquing others—dissembling, spinning, and manipulating all while preening as though such corruptions of our fundamental duty to the truth are merely skillful and sophisticated maneuvers? In other words, if they see chronic dishonesty among the humans in charge? If they are smart—and they often are—they may conclude that honesty isn’t truly valued at school. They may suspect that neither the school nor its staff deserves their assent. They will likely be susceptible to the knee-jerk cynicism of pop culture demigods for whom seeing through things is all they know of vision.

I talked with a school superintendent a few years ago about the challenges of leadership in a diverse community. Most of the “conversation” revolved around his habitual translation of routine events into familiar little political dramas which gave him a stage to display his skills at manipulating and strategizing. His speech was a string of cliches and platitudes. “I believe in practicing the art of the possible.” “I don’t fight that battle anymore.” “Perception is reality.” “Sacred cows make great hamburger.” “Don’t tug on superman’s cape.” “Don’t build bridges where there is no river.” “School boards are like underwear. They need to be changed once in a while.” “The toes you step on today may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.” “Sometimes a person needs to rise above his principles.” It is a sort of wisdom, in the tradition of Polonius.

When I am around such people for long, Hannah Arendt watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem comes to mind. She was trying to understand his particular brand of evil, and she concluded that it was related to a dangerous form of mindlessness: “He was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. . . .Despite his rather bad memory, [he] repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. . . .The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” On my last day at a school that was going through the usual decline following the arrival as of superintendent pretending, among a mass of other dishonesties, to be an educational leader, the newly acting principal came to me and uttered a string of untrue justifications for his inaction. A nasty phrase came to mind: “You’d make a good Nazi.” Those who did well in the Third Reich were mainly careerists, doing what they convinced themselves they had to do to keep their positions or perks. Such always staff the Regimes of Lies which gained epic proportions during the 20th century. Polonius would have flourished in Hitler’s court, or in Stalin’s or Mao’s.

The key is not to try to improve people or situations but to position oneself to maximize gain. The superintendent with his quiver of catch phrases rarely viewed problems as teaching opportunities. He viewed them as problems to be evaded or papered over, but to attempt to teach is to attempt real change at the level of understanding and perception. It’s hard work and it is often rebuffed or attacked rather than praised. Still.

The world’s great tradition views the daily problems of life as teaching opportunities. Call it the way of Socrates, or the way of the teacher. The way of the teacher leads through different terrain than that visible to people on the make. Teachers approach problems by deepening their understanding. They have found a faith that life makes sense, always, and that squabbles can be dissolved if people can see the situation more accurately and more completely. There are lots of reasons why such seeing is hard to realize, but it remains the real work for leaders who are in their hearts teachers rather than controllers.

I don’t believe the little superintendent was pondering such things. Passing his life as a small-town politico filled his mind: inventing strategies, pretending his way to success (which he understood in the usual terms: money, status and survival). His life as an impostor passed through familiar stages: the triumph of being hired and installing his cronies was followed by the struggle to survive against an accumulating cast of enemies, and this was followed by a costly (to the district) buyout of the years remaining on his contract. Schools in Montana all too often pay careerist administrators to leave town. So he left with a pocketful of money, without chagrin at having damaged an institution intended to rescue the young from the prison of ignorance.

Two roads diverge in a wood, and the less traveled one leads to the high country of things as they really are. Words are important to those on that journey. It’s no accident language is a primary battleground in the war against being good and being true. Kierkegaard saw the issue clearly. As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, he asked us to imagine “a country in which a royal ordinance goes out. Instead of complying with the command, however, the king’s subjects begin to interpret. Each new day sees new interpretations of the ordinance; soon the populace can hardly keep track of the various offerings: “Everything is interpretation—but no one reads the royal ordinance in such a way that he acts accordingly.” Kierkegaard imagines God’s response: “My house is a house of prayer, but you have changed it into a den of thieves.” English departments, which could have been keepers of the word have, seeing the main chance, become charnel houses of interpretation.

What has not changed is that people who want to see things as they are will need to guard against corrupted words, which dissolve everything. We cannot sustain right action if we cannot say in clear language what is right. Since ancient times, luminaries of human communications have wrestled with the connection between ethics, politics and speech. It was a constant preoccupation of Plato’s Socrates and later of Rome’s greatest orators. Richard Lanham called it the “Q” question, referring to the ancient Roman orator and rhetorical theorist Quintilian. Quoting Cato the Elder, Quintilian argued that a great speaker must have both outstanding gifts of speech and excellence of character. It’s true there have been louses who could move a crowd with words, but they do not move them to attempt great endeavors. That would require vision of the sort that links individual well-being to the overall health of the community.

Inevitably, such vision is experienced as a distraction from what many leaders today would prefer to imagine, which is their own glory.

The question to ask of a person auditioning for the role of school leader is simple. What does he have to teach? That’s the beginning of the conversation that defines schools worth attending.

Getting back to the garden

White clematis, red roses

White clematis, red roses

I believe the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we began. Once we didn’t need to care for the garden–it was a gift. But we couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

I’ve learned the way back to the garden. We merely have to create it around us. Then we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

What did God mean when he said it was good, after finishing Creation? I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what “goodness” means, who are not even sure it is something they should want. They confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is the vision beyond the rules. A vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so we teach children little rules that preserve the good order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When Valerie’s and my children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouths, Valerie kept a philodendron on the coffee table. Often that poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of reach.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking.

What we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our living, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

Sometimes we encountered a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of the forlorn philodendron. Such moments rightly understood are teaching opportunities. When I lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” I only wanted her to learn.

I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed a possibility. But in fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then comprehend. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will but hinted at a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

We wanted our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness, which is complex and requires us to live amid ordered loves.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So we start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we also knew that as her questioning spirit became more powerful, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward what we really hoped to teach.

It wasn’t long before we let her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules without making the rules absolute. Life is complicated in precisely the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness before they can see the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep young people safe while they are still learning how life works.

As Wendell Berry observed, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is almost a synonym for wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for that harmony.

A happy life is a garden–a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, an embodiment of joy. It adheres to principles of selection which allow careful editing of what the world offers. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

And always, it is here. It is now.

Making choice our god

God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble, or we can be compelled to be humble.
-Ezra Taft Benson

Path to the Secret Garden

Path to the Secret Garden

Nietzsche’s argument in favor of atheism was revelatory: “If there were gods how could I bear not to be a god? Therefore, there are no gods.” It’s not really an argument. It’s a pure assertion of will. I will have no gods above me. It’s a choice to proceed as though he were a god himself.

It’s a common choice today: the decision to treat choice itself as god. It leads to a world of false moralities in which the act of choosing, and not the content of the choice, is given moral status. We are taught that the only moral standard we may apply to sexual practices is that they are the free choices of “consenting adults.”

That’s a low standard. It doesn’t establish the sort of moral reasoning that draws the world forward and upward, toward more light, more relationship, more peace and more love. It makes the entry gate into the garden seem to be the final destination. Yes, we may choose, but that doesn’t end the conversation about which choices are wise and which foolish.

We are not in fact gods. We are fearful and vulnerable creatures at large in a cosmos of unimaginable forces that do not care for us and do not heed us. Every moment we live is a moment we are at risk, and we lack the power to foretell what is coming or to adequately defend ourselves against much that will come. We can choose a path that becomes harder and harder to see, disappearing into thickets and brambles, descending ever farther into dark woods full of trouble.

And yet, God abides. We cannot choose otherwise. We can only choose to believe or to chase illusions.

If we choose, we can spend our time learning what he wants us to do and then doing it. As we do, more and more of what remains beyond the garden gate comes into view. Little by little we make our home in the kingdom of heaven, which is here and now, though visible only to the degree we choose to believe, choose to submit.

No end to work

grandkids in the garden

Bryce, Jenna and Daij experience the joys of earthly life, participating hands-on in the abundance that is ours to make. People need work.

People need to work if they are to feel contentment, argues James Bruce. They are made that way.This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.

This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.

That model has done more to increase general wealth and decrease poverty than any other system people have imagined. But it may be inadequate in the stage of history we have now entered, where technology drastically reduces the need for human workers while globalization great increases the wealth flowing into the largest corporate entities. Unimaginable sums of money accumulate in the hands of relatively few players.

Maybe we need to rethink how wealth is distributed. In recent decades we’ve implemented many schemes to make wealth available to people without  jobs. Modern welfare states provide food, housing, health care, education and cash to people on the dole. This has solved one problem–avoiding for most the worst forms of destitution, but the system has done a wretched job of providing the poor with the dignity and contentment that only come from giving to causes beyond the self and helping others. We have created masses of people who remain poorer than workers, in spite of food stamps, but who feel resentment rather than gratitude and envy rather than contentment and anger rather than gratitude.

A wiser welfare policy would not forget that people need work, real work, for reasons that go beyond acquiring purchasing power in the  marketplace. They need the sense of empowerment that comes from setting difficult goals and reaching them, step by step, over weeks and years.  They need to feel the security of self-reliance, of learning that periods of trouble and discomfort can be accepted as opportunities to learn strength and virtue. They need to know the courage one finds in the companionship of great souls of the present and past, who have labored and sacrificed to uplift neighbors and to make their portion of the world into a better place. They need to exult in the sweet peace that one finds only in helping others, in forgetting the self by giving gifts of service. They need work.

Modern states need welfare policies based on enduring principles of human nature. This means that those who can work must be expected to work. It means that personal judgments about both the need and the capacity of those seeking help need to be made, which means that most decisions must be made at a very local level. It means that local leaders need to sought and trained–people who understand the interdependence of good character and happiness, people who are willing to love and minister and teach as well as to disburse dollars.  Of course, platitudes and good intentions aren’t enough. We should be chastened and sobered by past failures, pondering them prayerfully.

Baltimore provides a case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still, within our reach--though not without God's help.

Baltimore provides a good case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still,, within our reach.

It also means that agencies that accumulate wealth in the markets need to look at communities as something more than markets. Every neighborhood in the world faces troubles, since the world around them is constantly changing calling forth new responses, and since the worlds within them are constantly changing as all individual members move constantly into new stages of life, their abilities and insights and desires changing. Much of the work that should be done in such places does not make sense to one looking at short, direct connection to profits. So we have neighborhoods where there are no gardens and gardeners, where buildings are unpainted and dirty, where garbage accumulates and vandalism goes unanswered. We have streets of apartments where few books are owned, far from the reach of libraries and bookmobiles. We have families where for generations nobody has had a job, learning what is learned by getting up each morning, brushing one’s teeth and catching an early bus.

Investing in such places would in the not-so-long term be much better business than allowing the envy and rage of the poor to fester and spread, leading to the sort of mass movements that caused breath-taking disasters in the last century. We have many people who would be willing to help and we have an endless supply of places that need help. We have plenty of work to do, and more awareness than we sometimes admit of how to start on that work. What we don’t have is a lot of time.

The way we were

Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.

Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.

I grew up in a small town on an Indian reservation in a one of the spectacular mountain valleys of western Montana. We had enough mass media in those post-World War II days for me to think my home was poor and rural, far from important people and significant events that seemed more real because television cameras broadcast them to the whole world. My earliest memory that could be called “political” was of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when, for the first time in history, the media corporations patched together without satellites a haphazard nationwide network, bringing live coverage of the speeches and ceremonies that surrounded the state funeral of one of the early heroes of the television age. A global village had formed, though its presence was weak, in black and white, without much detail.

That media empire wasn’t my primary environment. I could buy balsa wood glider airplanes for a quarter at Gambles and spend entire afternoons wandering valley meadows, finding the best hills to launch. I bought a transistor radio about the size of baloney sandwich, one of the first purchases I made with money from my first job, driving a Massey-Ferguson pulling a harrow, changing sprinkler pipes, bucking bales of hay on a neighbor’s dairy ranch. The speakers were scratchy by current standards and the AM stations were sometimes elusive, but I could keep up with top 40 pop rock songs: “Midnight Confessions,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and such. I tuned in occasionally, in the evenings, when real life slowed. After we got a television, my mother kept it on constantly, an endless drama of soap operas flowing from crisis to crisis as she ironed and cleaned, drinking long-necked bottles of Pepsi. By then I wasn’t spending much time at home. My life, outside school, was spent mostly with friends—riding horses on mountain trails, shooting shotguns at ducks, conspiring in nearly random acts of little vandalism that was more contemptible than criminal.

Always, I had a sense that these things were nearly unreal—not that I doubted they existed in some durable and consequential way—but just that I knew reality was mostly something else. The troubles and triumphs of my little life were the tangible edge of something I couldn’t penetrate, the deeply-spinning, spiraled magic of which the Milky Way was only a glittering garland. My friends cared little about this and mocked such things, so I kept a distance.

As soon as I learned to read, the weekly trips to the small library–started a generation before by the St. Ignatius Women’s Club, a handful of wives and mothers who got together to talk about culture and to serve the town—became the high point of my week. Reading reassured me that I wasn’t alone and wasn’t crazy. The words I heard reverberating in my head, thoughts from beyond that were mine but not just mine, connected me entire to entire kingdoms reaching both into heaven and hell, giving substance to impressions I had that more was at stake than people around me ever talked about.

My mother was insistent about getting me and my siblings to church every Sunday. I wasn’t rebellious, except in a superficial, adolescent way. I’ve always had the gift of belief. The great stories of a shepherd boy defeating a giant, of seas parting at the last moment and of a miraculous birth were all I had found that seemed true enough to make sense of a momentousness that I sensed but could not see in the unfolding daily events around me. I knew that like Frodo I was little and vulnerable but nonetheless at a center of an epic tale happening mostly in the great Beyond I discovered in my mind.

Some of what I found in the Bible didn’t resonate with me. The prophets spoke repeatedly to people who were wicked in ways I couldn’t fathom, urging them to stop doing things that I knew nothing about. I had never known anyone, or even imagined anyone, who delighted in bloodshed, for example. The prohibitions against various forms of sexual lust seemed pro forma. While I knew vaguely that people acted badly, I didn’t see or hear much more than rumor. The people I actually experienced were nice and respectable. They might keep the money if a clerk accidentally gave them too much change, and they routinely made “California” stops at stop signs on empty roads, and they often spoke rudely to others and occasionally got in physical fights, but I had no real idea what the deal was in Sodom. It was true that drunks lying passed out beside buildings or in the weeds along roads were not rare, and bullying was routine at school, but it still seemed that real bad guys existed mostly in Hollywood imaginations.

Though I couldn’t notice it then, the authorial voice I encountered in book after book interpreted reality with the same basic decency as the adults who ran my world. I now know that the point of view which I took as a foundation of life was a cultural construct, a human achievement centuries in the making. My decent and ordinary childhood was made possible by the intentional invention of a world where, to play with Auden’s great lines, promises were kept, and one could weep because another wept. We were a neighborly and a compassionate people, dropping off a venison roast and a brick of cheese to a family down on its luck, gathering at the houses of mourning, stopping to help a guy with a flat, feeling the honor of paying our bills and being honest with the people we met.

To a great extent, we are still that way, but it no longer seems a universal way of being and other ways are well established around us. There have been two murders within a block of my house within the past ten years, denizens of that underclass which the important people no longer deign to teach. One night in my work as a volunteer EMT I was dispatched to help a young man, thrashing and screaming unintelligibly on a gravel back road. His face had been stomped and his tongue had been cut out—a witness to the vibrant drug culture that passes mostly unseen by people with nice cars and jobs but which is really only inches or moments away.

The great scholar of antiquity, Hugh Nibley, once remarked, “Woe unto the generation that understands the Book of Mormon.” That book parallels the Bible in telling repeated histories of cultural and spiritual decay with people eventually finding themselves impotent, bound on every side by enemies and trouble. That was then. Now, here, terrorists compete with other terrorists to slaughter people in the most horrific ways they can imagine, capturing their atrocities in high definition video and broadcasting them to the world. Their delight in bloodshed defines them. Bloggers chronicle the daily death toll of murders in the tough neighborhoods of Chicago. Slave traffickers find business is properous, their wealth and power growing. The murder and mayhem of drug cartels on our border makes itself felt far north, in communities large and small.

An awareness has grown gradually that  old scriptures are now resonant and relevant in ways that were hard to see a short time ago. No text is more relevant to right now than the Bible.

Free choice in 100 AD

kermitxrayThe tectonic shift accomplished by Christianity in the culture of Late Antiquity was driven by a profound re-thinking of free choice. To Roman minds governed by astrology and fate, living in a society where the only rules and guidelines ever imagined were those demanded by one’s social standing, the concept that each person stood before deity, accountable for every choice was, literally, a revelation. Finding oneself outside society and its norms, outside a cosmos governed by fate, and asked to choose whom or what to serve, regardless of whether one was high-born or slave, male or female, Hebrew or Greek or Roman, was to find oneself in a new world.

Classics professor Kyle Harper tells us that in the Christian culture emerging in Rome, an essential belief was that “nothing–not the stars, not physical violence, not even the quiet undertow of social expectation–could be held responsible for the individual’s choice of good and evil.” The Second Century Christian apologist Justin Martyr was the first philosopher to unambiguously use the term “free will.” According to Martyr, “The good is a purpose that man may accomplish through the freedom of his will, so that the evil man is justly punished, having become wicked through his own doing, while the just man is worthy of praise for his good deeds, not having transgressed the will of God in the exercise of his autonomy.” Humans, in the image of God, are apart from the rest of Creation. “Not like plants or beasts, without the faculty of choice, did God create man.”

It was an unsettling discovery. The idea that persons were free in a moral context quite apart from state and society, uncontrolled by cosmic fate, was essential to a host of ideas that gave Europe much of its later character. Slavery was abandoned and then abolished, freedom of religion advanced, and the idea of principles separate from and superior to society supported the development of rule of law understood as including the mightiest of earthly ruler under its demands.

The old determinism of the stars has lost most of its legitimacy among moderns, but determinism remains, offering its reassuring escape from freedom. We are not free, some think, because our genes control who we are and what we do, or our horizons are formed by our poverty or our race or our sex. Free will is an illusion, according to as many authorities as you would like to cite. Advocates of economic determinism, cultural determinism, psychological determinism, biological determinism, technological determinism and historical determinism are quite sure we are not free.

Samuel Johnson famously observed that  “you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning.” He did not resolve all the arguments, but he did take a side. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” he said. “All experience for it.”

Montana Nature Narratives (at the Missoula Book Festival)

“New York is about power and status. Seattle is about having stuff. But Montana is about the place you live.” —E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

Nature Writing Panel Discussion

The “nature narratives” panel at Fact & Fiction featured authors Russ Beck, Don Thomas and John Clayton. It was moderated by Read Trammel from UMs MFA writing program.

This was the first session I went to at the Book Festival, held on a gorgeous September Friday in downtown Missoula. By the time the day was over, I had come to distrust any author presuming to talk about “narrative” or “story.” Those venerable terms have apparently become cliches, intended to evoke “big ideas” and revolutionary thinking. Alas, few people up are up to such billing.

For a long time I participated in such events, supported by the hope that Montana could practice self-governance, using education and public conversations to fend off the stifling growth of ideology that had made so many places so unfree and so unbeautiful. Like every community in every time and place, Montana faces troubles that, if we are to survive in a state of civilization, we need to engage.

The three writers in this session all managed to be thoughtful and interesting, in the sense that they added a few fresh details to the old story of new money and new fashions displacing older money and older fashions. They spoke at Fact & Fiction, an independently-owned bookstore in downtown Missoula. The store hosted a series of presentations by authors published by The History Press—a national publishing company based in South Carolina that specializes in publishing local history for local audiences. The company has published about 2000 books since their startup in 2004, including several titles in Montana, including books by the three authors who participated in this panel discussion: John Clayton (Montana’s Enduring Frontier), Don Thomas (Montana: Peaks, Streams and Prairie) and Russ Beck (On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies: Essays and Dubious Advice).

The writers discussed an array of ideas, including the idea of writing in personal narrative. “The stories that stay with us are personal narratives,” said Beck. “If I’ve done my job, the complex processes in nature that have influenced my life and thinking in complex ways” are communicated to the audience in ways that reveal those complex interactions.

Clayton observed that “personal stories are a great way to connect people to science.” He noted that as a journalist, he’s always been reluctant to write about himself or to give personal opinions, since for him, writing is mainly about the narrative structure—the way a story and plot itself conveys the truth about things. But as he used his experiences to illustrate truths he had observed, he found that “Oh no! I’m expressing a lot of opinions.”

Thomas agreed. He uses his experience to communicate quite a lot of scientific and political knowledge. Much of the work of writing is knowing things, and putting that knowledge in service of others—but also of nature itself. “Wildlife needs constituents,” he said. He sounded what was probably the dominant theme in the session: in the West today, nature is facing many political and cultural threats.

All the writers gave illustrations of the ways the West has always been a difficult place to live. “Nothing is easy in the west.” He noted that we live in a very dry landscape but with Kentucky bluegrass lawns. “We’re doing a lot of things wrong,” he said, “which ends up being good for writing.”

One of Clayton’s goals as a writer is “tell stories that no one has heard before.” He said he’s been tempted to write about “Buffalo Bill and the Copper Kings” and other topics common among western writer, but that he’s more interested in finding bits of history that have been ignored. For example, in 1933, some men stole a train as a protest and headed east toward Washington, D.C. “At each stop along the way, they were greeted warmly by people.” It was an act of political protest, and “they were supported by the unemployed people.” Clayton said this was a surprisingly urban story, rather than the more typical story of country people and country issues.

All the writers commented on changes that are occurring in the West today—revisiting familiar talk about “the old west” and “the new west.” Clayton was skeptical that things were changing now much more than they always had. He suspected that all the talk about a “new west” of “microbreweries and espresso” might just be a symptom of the Baby Boomers’ fascination with themselves. He cited an article entitled “Old West and New” published in 1932, which was about the way a new kind of westerner was crowding out the original cowboys.

Thomas acknowledged that there was some truth to that, but he also argued that things were changing in important ways that writers needed to address because people needed to think about them. An astonishing number of ranches in Montana have sold for more than $10 million in recent years, he said. “Those ranches aren’t being bought by farmers or ranchers,” he said. They are being bought by “silicon valley money.” He said that big money is attacking Montana’s game laws and, specifically, stream access laws. The changes that are possible could have far-reaching effects on how we live in Montana. The “public trust doctrine” we are used to in Montana, that prevents people from owning the wildlife, “is unique to North America,” he said. The idea that wildlife can’t be owned but must be managed for the public has been rare in the context of world politics. “That doctrine is one of the reasons we have all this wildlife in Montana,” he said. “And some very rich people want all that to go away.”

Beck’s experience has been mainly in Utah, and he agreed that Montana has been blessed with stream access laws that have made Montana a world mecca for fly fishing. “It’s not like that in Utah,” he said. “We don’t have stream access laws there,” so people can fence off rivers and streams and deny the public access. “The best fishing in northern Utah,” he observed, “is in southern Idaho.”

Thomas did observe that interesting people are coming to the state, and some changes are welcome. “In Livingston, you used to have a choice of two topics for conversation,” he said. “You could discuss the weather or beef prices.” That is no longer the case.

But he was quite passionate that Montana is facing huge changes driven by big money, and Montanan’s would have to engage if they wanted to preserve some of what is best about living in Montana. He said there’s constant pressure to transfer public land to private ownership. The extractive companies—oil companies—want free of regulations on mining and drilling. Part of the strategy involves a two-step. First, federal land is transferred to state ownership. But after “one bad fire season, that’s over,” he said. The cost of managing the lands will create enormous pressure to sell it off to private owners. The state has already passed a nonbinding resolution to study the idea of privatizing state lands, he said.

These are real problems, to be sure. The hoary way of responding to them is to join the partisan fray, and, for most writers, that means to enlist in the army of one or more of the big corporate environmental associations to disparage oil companies, capitalism and private ownership. If that way of conceptualizing the problem seems stale and unfruitful to you, you might have gained little from this session, beyond new details in a very old story.

I was interested enough to buy books by two of the presenters. They’re on my desk right now, along with a couple dozen other books I’ve bought but not yet read. I’m not sure when or if a day will come when reading them seems the most pressing thing I could do right then. I’m doubtful, at the moment, that the literary crowd is going to lead Montana out of the desolation of modern ideology. Our most serious environmental threat today is that our narrative environment is becoming toxic. I wish I thought Montana’s literary gang was part of the solution.

Write Away

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End of the line

The Cave

In The Republic, Plato argues that the enlightened have a duty to return to the cave to help the prisoners there. The older Plato no longer believed they could be helped. When bands of ideologues get control of the state, they eliminate dissidents from public life and bring children up in the new creed. Such regimes can be toppled by force, but the philosopher has only the authority of the spirit. Any attempt to restore order by violent means defeats itself. Having made his offer and been refused, the philosopher leaves the cave for good.

Will the fed reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, AKA NCLB) or will the process break down again again in endless spirals of argument and counter-argument? The controversies remind me of a parable told by the stranger from Elea in Plato’s Statesman. It’s about what happens when “the people” start to regulate those with experience and knowledge. The problem is that it’s impossible for ordinary laymen to judge the work of experts, which ends up meaning as ordinary people get more influence on government, the decisions tend to get worse.

The Eleatic Stranger tells about the plight of a pilot and a physician. With the layman’s dim insight, he sees only that the physician causes him pain, charges more for his cures than the material substance is worth, and often does not effect a cure. Similarly, the pilot causes damage at sea and throws his merchandise overboard during storms. Both the physician and the pilot may save lives, but this doesn’t spare them harsh judgments in the view of indignant “victims.” If we suppose that such victims form a special interest group, we can easily imagine them, completely ignorant of the true arts of navigation and medicine, creating a set of laws to regulate the future conduct of pilots and physicians, with the shrill confidence of Bill O’Reilly in his campaign for “Jessica’s Law,” which leaves no room for future discretion.

Though Plato knows that the neither the pilot’s nor the physician’s knowledge can be summarized in exceptionless rules that will serve well in all situations, the Stranger doesn’t stop here. He further suggests that the aroused people will demand that from now on physicians and pilots will be chosen by elections, and after the election they will need to heal the sick and navigate the sea according to written rules. Not only that, but at the end of each year, the incumbent pilots and physicians will face a people’s court, where anyone will be free to lodge accusations that the letter of the law was not precisely followed. Those found guilty by the people will face fines or jail sentences.

Plato thought only fools would enter those occupations under such conditions. And that’s not the end of the matter. No one will be allowed to question the law. One who offers new discoveries will be accused of playing politics, trying to corrupt the system, for “nobody should be wiser than the law.”

Plato knew, of course, that it was just such lawfulness and democracy that culminated in the murder of Socrates–the death of philosophical reason, if you will. He spoke directly to the deadening power of laws and democracy possible in a place that has become corrupted, so that skilled practitioners are over-regulated by ignorant congresses: “The arts would utterly perish and could never be recovered; and life which is a burden even now would then no longer be worth living.”

In contemporary America we see such processes at work clearly in those parts of society most governed by political bureaucracies: law enforcement, education, and (increasingly) medicine.

The more congress argues about education at the federal level, the more meaningful conversations at the local level, the only place any actual teaching takes place, are drowned out.  As new mandates flood the system, busy administrators are overwhelmed with compliance issues and tend to look on questions or reservations as little more than trouble-making. So teachers are mandated to collaborate, but they are discouraged from identifying things that aren’t working or proposing solutions.  A popular reform program claims that teachers are free to think whatever they want, as long as they do what they are told. It’s called a “tight-loose” approach. On some matters, the reins are held tightly by the system, and on others they are quite loose. Most things that matter are defined tightly, though whether or not they are defined sanely or correctly is deemed above the pay grade of practitioners.

Laws of Life?

Zayda at Flathead Lake (Photo by Christa)

Zayda at Flathead Lake (Photo by Christa)

Reading David Brooks’ The Road to Character with high school students this summer, I find some of them can’t quite get their mind around the distinction between “moral realism” and “the ethics of authenticity.” The distinction is important, because Brooks’ argument is in favor of the former and in opposition to the latter. In various ways, he makes the point that part of living well is to respond to what’s out there–that some ways of life work better than others because they are are better fitted to reality–to things as they are.

The argument for authenticity usually assumes that what’s most important is that a person “be true to the self,” that we find the right way to act by consulting our passions and feelings. Brooks doubts that, arguing that it’s often more important that we restrain and control our passions and feelings. In this he follows ancient traditions–most notably Aristotle. For Aristotle, it’s possible to judge some societies as better than others, because it’s possible to grasp principles by which societies can be judged. This cannot be the case if whatever a culture deems is right is right, so that if Southerners thought slavery was moral, then it was okay “for them.” Not judging is central to the deconstructionist project.

Aristotle argued that the pursuit of truth is the attempt to align one’s thinking and acting with reality, which assumes there is a reality independent of people’s opinions. One can have the opinion that lying to get what you want is okay, but reality dictates that if you keep doing that others will figure out that you are dishonest and stop trusting you, which will reduce your power–your ability to get what you want. So “honesty is the best policy” is not just something some societies teach. It’s a moral reality that nobody can change.

Students keep drifting back to the idea that morality changes as society changes; therefore, there are no universals. So they don’t really follow the points Brooks is making. It’s okay to disagree with him, but an educated person should be able to understand him.

The idea of moral realism might be glimpsed in the traditional bits of wisdom encoded in proverbs and folk sayings. They are time-tested understandings of how things are, perceptions of wisdom–what John Templeton called the “Laws of Life.” There’s the “law of the harvest”: you reap what you sow. This is also described as “what goes around comes around” or summarized by the rule that “as ye judge ye shall be judged.”

Humanity has collected thousands of them:

It is better to love than to be loved.
Success is a journey, not a destination.
Enthusiasm is contagious (and nothing important is achieved without enthusiasm).
The borrower is a servant to the lender.
We find what we look for (good or evil).
Every ending is a beginning.
The way to fix bad things is to create good things.
Love is stronger than everything else.
You can’t solve a problem at the same level as the problem. You need to get above it.
The truth will make you free.
To find gold you need to search where the gold is.
Habit is the best servant, the worst master.
People are punished by their sins not for them.
Make yourself necessary and the world will feed you.
Luck favors the prepared.
Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

These might be understood as descriptions of how things are rather than as social rules. This is familiar to people knowledgeable and the Biblical faiths. The Bible makes little distinction between wisdom and righteousness. Frederick Buechner once pointed out that

…the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is. [Quoted by Alvin Plantinga]

Moral realism suggests simply that nature, including human nature, is governed by patterns that the perceptive observer can discern. To discern these patterns and to live in accordance with them is wisdom, according to Brooks and Aristotle. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion.”

Such people “accommodate themselves to reality,” said Plantinga. “They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter whether they have derived their wisdom from scripture or from more general revelation.” Plantinga suggests we may pick up such truths from Proverbs or from paying attention to the world around us or possibly from a wise grandparent. But, he says, wherever we get them, the wise do what Brooks is suggesting–they adjust to reality, changing their own character to be more effective in the world as it actually is. They live by truths such as these:

The more you talk, the less people listen.
If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.

Reposted with revisions from The Good Place