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.

For such people, the key to advancement 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.

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.

Needed: sound teaching about the rules of life and the secrets of happiness

Zoran

The art of living well can be taught. It’s more fundamental and more interesting than the art of bureaucratic survival, which has become the de facto curriculum of many schools. Cohesive Pieces

Growing up in a strong and stable family may be the best preparation for living a happy life. Kids so blessed learn many of the little secrets that encourage happiness–most having to do with caring for relationships–by experience within intelligent and loving families.

For young people who aren’t so lucky, can formal education provide some of the missing knowledge about how to form enduring relationships, including marriages? Can the secrets of effective living be identified and taught?

I’ve always thought that the answer was rather obvious. Of course. So I was interested in reading Facilitating Forever, the report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. It supports “relationship literacy education for youth and young adults to help them avoid the dangerous detours that make it difficult to form healthy marriages.”

In a good society, the vision of marriage and community would be passed on to young people throughout the culture, as was the case in America not long ago. Our literary heritage, before the twentieth century, is a rich source of knowledge about such things. Unfortunately, contemporary literature teachers are much more in their comfort zone when discoursing on race, gender, privilege, imperialism and colonialism than when exploring character or contemplating happily ever after.

Besides, schools are now understood as adjuncts to the global economy, charged with the mission of fitting young people to the bureaucratized distribution of social niches. The big problem now facing educators is not how to teach young people what they need to know and understand to handle the challenges of life. Rather, it is to keep everyone on track and on schedule to receive the credentials which, in a world of appearances and deceptions, increasingly determine their fate.

Those in the business of perfecting our collectivist conversion are fond of suggesting that dropping out of school causes poverty and crime. No doubt the careers of education officials and marketers will work better when society is organized as a cradle to gave school or hospital. They cite stats, such as those from a 2009 Northeastern University study, that correlated dropping out of high school with higher rates of poverty and crime. Indeed, the numbers are stark. Among dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, incarceration rates were 63 times higher than among college graduates, and according to USDE stats the poverty rate for dropouts is 30.8 percent, while for those with at least it a bachelor’s degree it is 13.5 percent.

While the statisticians who author such reports are sometimes scrupulous enough not to assert causation, those who want to make their name as champions of public education are not always so careful. Telling kids that if they drop out of school they are doomed to lives of crime and poverty is precisely the sort of fear tactic used in authoritarian systems everywhere. China’s students excel at getting high test scores–though what else they excel at remains in question–mainly because the Chinese system offers little hope beyond official exams. Chinese students study hard because the alternative terrifies them.

One can still hope that America will not lose all of what it once understood of freedom.

Many honest readers, on both the left and the right, of the research on at risk youth have concluded that increasing graduation rates through the usual strategies–dumbing down the curriculum and increasing coercion–won’t have much effect, because the problem is much larger than compliance with school assignments. It is not simply the case that academic failure causes poverty and crime; it is, rather, that children raised by unstable and dysfunctional families are at great risk of faring poorly in many areas, including schools and the economy.

If education marketers were genuinely concerned about the destiny of at risk students, they would do more than preach the value of staying in school. They would focus on the substance of what is taught, encouraging more attention to what was once called character–the secrets of happiness and strong families and intelligent communities.

We know that the more than 40% of children now born to unmarried parents face significantly higher risks than children from two-parent homes academically, economically, socially, and emotionally. Family stability and partners who marry before having children associate strongly with higher incomes and social mobility. In a recent Atlantic article on liberals and family values, Emma Green notes that “It’s like stable marriage and community are the secret sauce of economic well-being that nobody on the left wants to admit to using.” Middle and upper class people know how important stable marriages are to children’s well-being, but they avoid mentioning it or teaching it to young poor kids. That would be judgmental.

The inculcation of wisdom was once an explicit purpose of humanities education. In the schools we’ve built, such an idea now seems quaint, and we are unlikely to make much progress toward such teaching in the public schools. There, any discussion of morality by government workers, including teachers, feels like religious coercion and is thus attacked as a violation of the separation of church and state. There’s quite a bit wrong with that understanding, both legally and historically. But political correctness is a more potent force in today’s school than either law or reason. Most schools avoid controversy by abdicating moral discourse, and moral discourse itself remains completely unfamiliar to a good many of today’s youth. This state of affairs has gone on long enough that the same could be said of many teachers and administrators. In some schools, simple moves, such as pointing out that if moral relativism is correct, then it’s not reasonable to claim that abolishing slavery was moral progress–it was simply change, neither better nor worse–are met with blank stares.

At this point, it probably makes more sense to try to build new institutions than to reform old ones. The National Marriage Project is trying to build support for education programs that are voluntary and noncoercive. Perhaps a defense of freedom can best be made by looking beyond compulsory public education for means of teaching the truths so many youths desperately need to hear. Early reports are, at least, encouraging:

Making relationship literacy education more accessible to the less educated, in a sense, levels the playing field by offering clearer rules and research-based guidelines for creating healthy and stable families. And it needs to start early. For youth and young adults, discussions on “What does a healthy relationship look like?” include dating danger signs, such as violence or coercion, as well as instruction on basic interpersonal and communication skills. On his Greyhound Archipelago sojourn, Potemra listens to someone describe a fight between a mother’s bat-wielding ex-husband and her knife-wielding current boyfriend within the confines of her oldest son’s bedroom. Potemra, with reason, comments: “Now, I have heard, very many times, the phrase, ‘Every kid deserves a dad.’ But I have a follow-up question: Which dad—the one with the baseball bat or the one with the knife?”

Adolescents exposed to “youth relationship literacy education,” according to early research, come to understand better that neither knife- nor bat-wielding constitutes acceptable behavior—from a father, mother, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Violence might erupt, and erupt with frequency in
some families and relationships, but relationship literacy education teaches that it isn’t healthy, shouldn’t be tolerated, and signals danger. Perhaps in decades past, teenagers and children from dysfunctional homes might regularly catch a glimpse of Mike and Carol Brady or Steve and
Elyse Keaton—however dated the hair and social norms—dealing with conflict in measured, communicative terms. Maybe they also got exposed to healthy family interaction in friends’ and relatives’ homes. For too many youth now, this exposure is non-existent, and youth relationship
literacy education offers a better way to learn higher, though attainable, standards.

Nothing is more important right now to the survival of freedom in America and to the thriving of the next generation than sound teaching about the rules of life and the art of living wisely. We have a huge divide between well-educated people, whose family lives are surprisingly traditional, and the poor, who are struggling amid the chaos of an underclass where the culture of marriage has collapsed and moral anarchy is thriving. Though the problem is mainly educational, the public schools are not likely to be part of the solution. They have suffered an ideological capture, and when it comes to moral discourse the people there, for the most part, have nothing to say.

We need social entrepreneurs and we need new institutional forms and philanthropists to support them.

Photo from Cohesive Pieces

Teachers should be accountable–but to whom?


This video is an MSNBC promo–anchor Melissa Harris-Perry takes the next logical step, arguing that parents need to give their children over to the collective.

The accountability movement has persuaded many people that teachers are mainly accountable to the federal government or its surrogates–and increasingly state governments have accepted their role in education as vassals of the fed. School reformers normally discuss accountability in terms of mechanisms that allow people at the center to dictate to people in the classroom.

Where do parents fit into this scheme? Increasingly, they are simply ignored. As a teacher I’ve recognized that I have various obligations–certainly to my employer, and to some degree to the various agencies that provide funds with strings attached to schools.

But I’ve always felt that the heart of my job is to be a partner with parents–that my primary accountability is to them. They bear the main responsibility for the education of their children, and my work is to assist them in their work. Such a partnership is easy and mostly delightful when teacher and parent are on the same page regarding what is good for young people. For the most part, I haven’t encountered serious conflicts with parents as to what is reasonable and desirable for their children in an English classroom.

Lately, I’m being told that I am accountable to the collective. I would feel better about that if I could detect the slightest trace of irony in those who say such things. But they seem serious. Zealous, even. My disquiet is fed by awareness that, historically, people who fantasize about collectives don’t rest until they include everyone. Collectives work by creating total worlds–or antiworlds, in James Kalb’s view. They aren’t self-correcting. They keep expanding until they collapse.

At bottom, collectives distrust all outsiders, because they are not based on truth and thus need to constantly repress all voices except the orthodox. The collective desires to replace all other agents as the focus of attention, and this is complicated by competing visions. For the school collectivists, a natural question is “Why should accountability to the collective stop at the school house doors?” If education is a socializing process orchestrated by experts to meet goals set by the Managers, how can parents be left out of the scheme? For those who accept utilitarian principles–which includes most collectivists–arguments about the rights of parents sound nonsensical, remnants of an old order that is rapidly fading into a new order.

It’s only a matter of time before the accountability movement expands to hold parents accountable. It’s the sort of reversal that lies at the heart of ideology. Old schoolers believe the government, including its schools, is accountable to citizens. Many parents still think there is more to education than a global competition to eat each other’s lunches. Such a view springs from a poorly imagined economy, based on a simplistic Darwinian psychology, that imagines the economy as a competition one either wins or loses.

Fortunately, there are other ways to live. I love my garden, but I assume others in other places can also create wonderful gardens, and I hope they do. It doesn’t detract from mine at all, and the reality that they share my love for many things makes me happy. There are no real limits to the number of jobs we can have, or the amount of wealth we can create. We do not need to eat at others’ expense, and the highest and best use of schooling is not to engage in dog eat dog competition with the rest of the world.

I want each of my students to learn as much as he or she is willing to learn, without trammeling the freedom of each person–a freedom that has deep roots in the soul. I can entice and persuade, but I cannot coerce.

I want my students to contemplate what we know of love and of justice and of fear by considering many stories, both in fiction and in history. I want to them to think of that simple progression and what it means in the many, many places we have seen it: from fear to justice and from justice to love. I want to help them deepen and broaden their understanding of human flourishing, quite beyond the skills they need for the workplace–although I also believe that work will always be foundational to the good life, and that some knowledge and skill that are useful is central to life.

I want my students to love the places they live and the people they live with, and to come to better and better understanding of how those places work and who those people are. I want their sense of community to keep expanding, to include not just those who are here now but those who were once here, and those who are yet to come. I want them to think about how to live in ways that do not depend on the destruction of other places or the impoverishment of other people.

I’m having trouble seeing how the collectivists are much help with any of this. I prefer a world in which collectivists and teachers are both accountable to parents.

What does “The Butler” teach about America’s racial experience?

The Butler

If there’s nothing higher than the White House, there’s little hope.

The Butler doesn’t extend beyond the “progressive narrative” of American history. In this narrative, racism is pervasive−the major theme of our national experience.

In our actual past, racism has always had to contend with the better angels of our nature. Martin Luther King, Jr.was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the power of his rhetoric is inseparable from the depth of his faith that racism is contrary to God’s will and thus doomed. When he said “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he was not merely fashioning a trope. He was speaking truth, and he knew it was the white majority that he had to persuade and that most of them favored neither cruelty nor oppression.

Martin Luther King is present in The Butler, but the Christian tenor of his rhetoric is faint. He does defend the butler’s role to his son, who believes that angry political activism is the way to make progress. The King character points out that the domestic servant’s exemplification of service, effort, and restraint powerfully undermines racial stereotypes. He does not look down on the butler, as his son is wont to do.

It was Martin Luther King’s modeling of nonviolent and peaceful reconciliation that prepared the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he said. Such teaching was of a piece with his faith and hope:  “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

This was not Malcolm X’s message. which had more to do with anger and with victory than with love or transcendence: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor.” This derives from Marx. It’s the language of revolutionary ideology, dividing humanity into the classes of oppressor and oppressed. It’s the song  of hatred and bitterness that King warned against.

In the actual past, it was King’s message of peace and brotherhood that prepared America to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which were motivated by a vision of national unity. The political activism of Malcolm X was more useful for building a revolutionary army than for bringing a nation together. People had to choose between the two paths then just as they must now. The film, unfortunately, does not make the choice clear.

In Genesis, Joseph serves as a type of Christ. Sold into slavery, he served Pharaoh meticulously, in spite of his status as a despised minority. His patience and obedience in spite of brutal treatment positioned him to save the tribes of Israel and to ameliorate the harsh realities of this world. He foreshadowed what the Savior had to teach about oppression and brotherhood. He modeled the Christian way, which King profoundly understood.

The film generally leans a different way. In the end, the butler leaves his job at the White House and joins an angry protest movement−against Reagan, of all things. Reagan is presented, absurdly, as opposed to racial equality. This is done through cursory references to Apartheid in South Africa. The film uses the strained expedient of twisting Reagan’s opposition to communism into antagonism towards racial justice, ignoring the actual past, in which South Africa was infected with the same revolutionary ideology that moved Malcolm X.

In the film, enlightenment leads to street politics, serving up a vision of political activism as much of the meaning of goodness. The election of Barack Obama is presented as the apotheosis of our yearning for justice. Such is the progressive vision.

Loyalty to family and place?–or to career and calling?

Choice, Part 1

choiceDSCN8976What is most important–to eat food or to fulfill one’s duties? It’s easy to imagine a situation where one is hungry but also obligated to some task that interferes with grabbing a bite to eat, but to pose the dilemma as a simple choice doesn’t help much. The attempt to make a choice more clear by reducing it to simple terms fails. Of course, to live we must eat. But will we die before we get the job done?

A similar sort of confusion through failed simplification often haunts the dilemma of localism versus careerism. Should one remain loyal to one’s family and community or should one pursue one’s personal development and calling? I’m delighted that more people–such as the Porchers–are seeing that such a choice is a real dilemma. Public schools can be quite obtuse in their assumption that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of higher test scores, attendance at better colleges, and success in higher-paying jobs with better benefits. Those who choose to make local loyalties a priority in their lives would do well not to make their case by arguing that education and career success have little value.

We have to judge. It’s our primary work as human beings. The structure of the human mind immersed in time compels us to it. We can only do one thing at a time. So if we decide, for example, to build a canoe, we cannot use the same time to weed a garden. Even more fundamental, we can only think one thought at a time, so while we are struggling to compose a sonnet we cannot use the same time to research a business plan. Since we can’t stop thinking and are free to think whatever we want, what occupies our minds moment by moment represents the most significant judgments we have made.

The progress of modern societies have brought more and more of life into the realm of choice. A person born into a traditional Crow culture in eighteenth century Montana no doubt faced hard choices. The council fires to decide when and where to hunt, how to respond to Blackfeet war parties, and what remedies to try for sickness were no less demanding or complex than today’s cabinet meetings. And then, as now, courage was valued but temptations toward cowardice were plentiful.

But for most Crows, there was only one world—the world of the tribe embedded in Creation. Although they made hard judgments within the story of who they were, they encountered few suggestions that that story was only a choice. It was given, and, for the most part, accepted without question. A Crow born today, like anyone else, will hear the story of Christianity, the story of traditional Crow religion, the story of Bhuddism, but also the story of rock and roll hedonism, the story of economic determinism, the story of humanistic psychology and dozens of others. I met a Crow teenager in Pryor, Montana, who had hung a cross from a chain around his neck under a t-shirt with a picture of the heavy metal band Metallica. Over this he wore a jacket beaded with the emblem of his clan. Quite postmodern–cultures from all times and places jostling together on a shrinking planet. The best definition of modernism might simply be “competing narratives.”

Because we have different versions of reality available, we are not only free to choose, we are forced to choose. Some people face this daunting task by pretending that it doesn’t matter. They reduce fundamental judgments to “lifestyles” as though they are only deciding among the season’s fashion in shoes. We can adopt the libertarian view that all choices are equal, in that they equally represent an individual’s choice. But we know it’s not true. There is something fundamentally better about a wealthy movie star who spends a fortune starting a school for third world children and one who buys and yacht and blows a fortune on cocaine. Drawing lines with precision is difficult, but seeing that there are significant differences is easy. Some cultures build hospitals but some build only cannons. Some create places dominated by terror, some are held in order by law, and a few manage to organize themselves according to the principles of love.

Note that I am now talking about principles. To clarify the choices we face, we need to understand the principles that are in conflict. Principles are ideals. They are the rules not of the world as it is but of a world as we want it to be. The rules of life as Machiavelli tried to derive them from history may suggest that lying and theft sometimes work, in the sense that people sometimes do profit from them. People may indeed choose lying and theft when they advance one’s self-interest. There are many places where such principles are widely adopted governing principles, and we can see quite vividly the sort of world that results. The principles we choose to live by become our vote for the sort of world that humanity is making.

Clarifying principles is vital, but it’s not the end of the work. As an educational matter, it’s the beginning. The hard choices are not between good and evil so often as they are between two goods. Good principles are often in conflict, and in the ongoing work of choice our thinking becomes more complex as as understanding increases. Duty or food? Family or career? The question are less either/or and more when, and to what degree.

The choice that God gave Adam and Eve was to remain in the garden forever, in a sort of innocent stasis, or to eat the fruit that led to knowledge of good and evil–making one more like God, the text says. Mortality and a thousand sorrows were part of the choice, but it was knowledge of good and evil that they chose, and we remain their heirs. It’s not a simple choice. In this world, good and evil are entangled and sometimes inseparable, like wheat and quack grass. It’s also true that evil events bring to pass good consequences–as the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship deepened our understanding of what is needed to realize freedom, brotherhood, and equality. Each of us must do for ourselves our part of that work that began long ago–gaining knowledge of good and evil. It’s a necessary knowledge to any who would be good, which is a stronger and more complex thing than to be innocent.

Irony and multiculturalists and a sense of place

I’m sometimes prone to a quixotic hope that knowing and loving a particular place might be an adequate antidote to modernity. Theories are always simpler than reality, and thus wrong. I’ve played with these thoughts before:

powwow-file0001606276919“Yai Ya!” my grandson called, as he opened the kitchen door and walked in. It’s the Salish name for one’s mother’s mother. This happened nearly daily or several times a day once he was old enough to walk the few blocks from his parents’ house to ours. He didn’t knock, of course. And he was partly calling his grandmother and partly just announcing he had arrived. It was partly greeting and partly invitation. He was here! Where we were! It was good.

How many generations of young Salish boys showed up at their grandparents’ homes with just those words? How long had those syllables been echoing, more or less unchanged, through the abodes of people living in this valley? This place?

Place is a tricky concept to nail down, but I tend to enjoy all the various ways people have tried. They end up talking about the central realities of human life–-story, memory, kin, tradition, culture and land. My grandson traces his heritage in this place we share back, on his father’s side, into the “time immemorial” that the Salish like to talk about. I trace my own heritage back to Kansas, and then to Maryland and then to the Irish highlands on one side, and back to Utah, and then Ohio, then Massachusetts and then to the London slums on the other. Those connections, of course, are also part of my grandson’s history.

One of the ironies of the multiculturalists is that whether one talks to someone advocating a Salish language class on a reservation Montana or activists resisting cultural domination of Islam by the Dutch in the Netherlands, one will encounter similar conceptual machinery leading to parallel categorizations of thought. Multiculturalists around the world share what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls a “clandestine ideology.” This unifying ideology, she says, is “ultimately the mandatory litmus test” that people of any culture must pass to avoid being marginalized.

To be acceptable among the right sort of people,

one must join the call for equal representation for both sexes in all spheres of power. One must consider delinquency to be a result of poverty caused by social injustice. Contemporary man must hate all moral order; he must equate the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, but never equate communism with its gulags. He must a priori be suspicious of profit and financial institutions; he must be suspicious of the virtuous, who invariably must be disguising hypocritical vices even more dangerous than the vices of the depraved. He must hate colonizers, unless they are former victims themselves. On the other hand, our contemporary must legitimize all behaviors and all ways of life. He must call for equality everywhere, and fight for ever greater freedom for ever younger individuals.

She predicts that most people who read the excerpt above “will immediately suspect the author of wanting to defend colonial powers or a strict moral order.” This, Delsol says, is precisely what

shows so clearly that a mandatory way of thinking really does exist, and that contemporary man is unable to distance himself from it. Whoever dares to question it, or to even express a doubt about the validity of this sacred discourse, doubtlessly belongs to the camp of the opponent.

There’s a moral certainty in the ideology of late modernity–an absolutism–that disguises itself in talk of openness and inclusion and tolerance. At bottom it flows from a metaphysical dream that first took its characteristic modern form in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris before the Revolution, amid an intoxicating mixture of philosophy, drugs, food and sex. Amid the feasts of foreign delicacies and the prostitutes, distinctions of rank were obliterated, and hedonistic liberty created an atmosphere of social equality that combined illusion with gratification, making total secular happiness seem within reach. Reality would be reconstructed by intellectuals. The old morality would be dissolved.

Living as we do on this side of the cascading sequence of horrors orchestrated by secular ideology, from the Reign of Terror to Auschwitz to the gulags, we tend to wince and retreat a little when people begin speaking too confidently about their truths.

So we now often encounter moral certainty without truth. Our institutions are staffed with many who know what is right but who are also averse to real argument. Their moral certainty is ofen expressed as derision for those who have the wrong thoughts, and the aversion to discussion of fundamental assumptions appears as a smug distaste for the contentions caused by those who persist in old certainties. Better to maintain the peace–a bland equality without strong positions. Except, of course, for the modernist orthodoxy on which that world is premised.

Most years, I read D’Arcy McNickle’s novel Wind from an Enemy Sky with high schoolers on the Flathead Reservation, where I have always lived. McNickle’s father was Scottish and his mother was Métis, and they arrived on the Reservation in time to be included in the tribal rolls, so McNickle was an enrolled member of a tribe in which he had no actual blood. He did share the cultural experiences of many Salish children, even attended a boarding school for natives. He spent his working life as a Ph.D.-bearing bureaucrat in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. He had a rich experience of cultural pluralism.

He crafted a novel about cultural misunderstandings, one that has no real villain, in the sense of someone intentionally causing harm–but that is nonetheless a tragedy. Those of us who grew up in the same place he grew up might find in its broad cast of characters the sort of dislocations and patterns of misunderstanding that are familiar.

My students and I encounter McNickle in the social context of public schools–in fact, the teaching of native literature is required by the state–that have taken much of their character from modern ideology, including texts such as this:

. . .if allegory is the attempt to move beyond beginnings, creating an abstracted colonial narrative, McNickle shows how this narrative continually fails, as the voice of the colonized continually erupts through it. Turning the colonizer into a corpse, McNickle ironically feeds off his displaced body. Through the ironic portrayal of the colonizers’ naivete, McNickle recontexualizes allegory, making a homeland for it, as well as turning it back as a weapon upon the enemy. It is in this sense that the figure of Washington is perpetually parodied for its ineffective allegories, turning its authority into yet another corpse–the emptied figurehead of colonial control.

I encounter no argument about whether colonial categories provide an adequate approach to this story–just an assumption that “colonilism” is the overarching structure within which we are to make our meanings. I do seem to encounter moral certainty, linked to clear categories. The categories support an enduring guilt–the presence that hovers over us all. The question the author angles up to is how should white people, such as myself, read native literature:

Let me then address the question outright: (how) should whites read indigenous texts? The “how” in this case is parenthetical because the sentence without it has never been adequately addressed. And yet the doubling of the discourse, along with the use of the English language, suggests that Euro-Americans are at least intended to be a partial audience. There is also the fact that native texts are being not only read, but taught, analyzed, and incorporated into an expanding English canon. So the question of “how” Euro-American culture should read these texts seems essential at this point, regardless of the intended audience.

She notes that when whites attempt to read texts written by indigenous writers, they often try to avoid their complicity by looking for native authenticity:

Possibly as a means of assuaging colonial guilt, indigenous literature is often treated with kid gloves–the “it’s not our place to say” mentality of colonial cultures who, while attempting to preserve some kind of native authenticity, simultaneously squat on their territory.

The author argues the Native American novel

serves to “interrogate” Euro-American discourse, rewriting European history in America through the “counter-discursive” practice of allegory. Through D’Arcy McNickle’s text, I have also attempted to reveal how Euro-Americans can read indigenous fiction for these counter-discursive practices. My hope has been that taking a seemingly postmodern trope (allegory) and reinvesting it with post-colonial interrogations might serve to define the genre of the Native American novel, which should be read differently than both the Euro-American novel and native oral tradition.

She cites revisionist historian Patricia Limerick, who said “the frontier only closed when the Indian was turned into an artifact.” In other words,

the representational system used to annex the receding frontier only became closed or complete when Indians were adequately accounted for as artifacts–unable to change or affect the new discourse. In a sense, this closing of the frontier is what has made natives appear safe, though inaccessible, for the first time. The closed nature of colonial discourse, which would turn natives into allegorical figures in a master discourse, or frame native literature in a precolonial moment, has had its day. It is time that the frontier was opened again.

That’s one way to think about what happened here and what McNickle is doing. It does seem, to me, to be a somewhat deadening discourse, hankering after fixed categories of oppressed and oppressor, white and indigenous–the categories with which intellectuals are wont to construe our world.

I’m not sure that those of us who live in such places as McNickle has in mind ever stopped experiencing race as a frontier–fluid and undergoing continuous redefinition and renegotiation. Time–as experienced and thought about for decades at particular places–is a dance within a constant flux of biology and culture–life. The ideological categories of oppressed and oppressor, Indian and white, fail to do justice.

The historian Elliott West once observed that in terms of what actually happened in the American West, the metaphor of marriage seems more useful than that of war and conquest. The rigid categories of war and enemy did arise, but they were less frequent and less sustainable than other modes of intercourse as groups of actual, living people found each other in the American West. The fur traders often took native wives and got on with the business of human commerce. Marriage has been a primary means of cultural survival and continuity.

James Hunter made a fascinating study of all that in Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family. He tells the story of a different Scottish family than McNickle’s–that of the MacDonald family–which today is one of the largest tribal families on the reservation. Members of that family are descended both from medieval warriors who battled for independence from England in the Scottish Highlands and from Nez Perce and Salish warriors who contested with the formidable Blackfeet of the northern plains over access to buffalo country. At the center of that story is the 1842 marriage between Hudson Bay fur trader Angus McDonald and his wife Catherine, a Nez Perce/Iroquois woman.

A friend of mine whose father who was fullblood Kootenai–a man of the twentieth century who made his living as a gypo logger–calls people who think about such things as emptied figureheads of colonial control “college Indians.” What they espouse they found at universities and not in traditional folkways.

A happier way of thinking about what happened here was offered to me by my friend Clarence Woodcock years ago. He was one of the local leaders in preserving and restoring Salish culture on the Flathead Reservation–including the creation of a Salish Culture Committee, to record, publish, teach and sustain traditional culture. Clarence was also a devout Catholic. The singing of Catholic hymns in Salish was a weekly feature of worship at the church in St. Ignatius, when he was alive. I asked him about that once–if he sometimes felt a conflict between his love and teaching of Salish culture and his Catholicism. He said he didn’t. “The cultures are much alike,” he said. “We didn’t know about Jesus, but the rest of it–knowing how to live in good ways–that was here.”

I’m neither Salish nor Catholic, but I think I understood.

Was the world more beautiful 100 years ago?

Was the world a better place 100 years ago? Glenn Reynolds links to the photographic evidence, but one of the things I enjoy about many films set in the early 20th Century is how beautiful that world seems to be. This includes movies as diverse as the Harry Potter films to the television productions of Downton Abby and Malick’s visually sublime Days of Heaven.

It only seems like a story about hollyhocks

perry-20130617_DPP-33tQuinn Televan laments the uniformity that inevitably follows standards enforced with standardized tests:

Not only will public schools be made uniform, but private schools, home schools, and religiously-affiliated schools will be pressured to adapt to Common Core. Students at non-public schools won’t be forced to take Common Core assessments but will have to adapt a decent part of their curricula to prepare their students for changes in these tests, which are paramount to students’ entrance into college. Nevertheless, the person credited as the architect of Common Core is David Coleman, current CEO of College Board, the company that administers the SAT test. Coleman officially announced that the SAT would be redesigned to align with Common Core. The designers of the ACT and GED tests followed suit, declaring they would also change to meld with Common Core.

It’s hard to listen day after day to policy debates which have largely replaced talk about teaching and learning. That’s what happens when politicians take over schools–they politicize them. Pity.

To teach, we need to find time to ignore them. We really do need lots of people thinking and doing different things: Love note to a beautiful stranger:

I find myself driving along a ratty looking street in a financially forlorn neighborhood and suddenly, nearly choke with gratitude for the single human soul who silently got down on hands and knees, again and again to plant seeds and pull weeds, to pick up litter and tilt a watering can, effectively saying ‘no’ to all that ‘tit for tat’ soul commerce, making time instead to plant and tend flowers that add such beauty to an otherwise bleak landscape, asking nothing in return.

A moral compass in a political wilderness

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Lincoln’s epic struggle to understand the conflicts between what is good and true on one hand what is political reality on the other constitutes one of American history’s most engrossing case studies of the rule of law.

Thinking about conflicts between principle and pragmatism take one to the heart of our current dilemmas in law and governance. Should we do whatever it takes to get the outcomes that we want at particular times–being realistic about how far short of our ideals the actual world remains? Or should we hold to principles we believe are good and true, even when they seem to take us places we would rather not go?

Reviewing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s new book, Reading Law, Stephen B. Presser summarizes the argument against prinicple–against rule of law:

The task of a judge is to interpret, not to make, law. It is fashionable today to claim that this view is naive, that words have ineluctably elusive meanings, and that therefore judging is a creative activity, offering license to do justice rather than simply mechanically to apply ancient understandings.

Principles as ancient understandings that we apply mechanically–who could favor that?

But is such mechanical action the main trouble we face in sustaining a republic based on principles and dedicated to establishing justice? Our main trouble, I think, is that principle is being abandoned in the pursuit of desired outcomes. We are increasingly governed by stratagems of power without much reflection about principle at all.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is useful for thinking about this issue. Ackerman‘s take on the film is that “Abe Lincoln was a politician, a good one, and proud of it. He understood that, to do great things, you sometimes had to get your hands dirty.” That seems to place the emphasis in slightly the wrong place.

I would rather say that Lincoln teaches that first and foremost we must identify the most important principle, and then to remain relentlessly true to it, sacrificing as necessary to make it true. All men are equal before the law–if we insist that it is so.