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.

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.

Are there really “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

Politics or morality? A knowledge of good and evil

gay pride flag

Crusader Nation: The moral absolutism of American sexual politics has trumped other considerations, and U.S. embassies, including the one in Tel Aviv, now fly a flag of militant sexual identities. Overcoming the supposed bigotry of all who disagree with such action has become a national priority, and reluctance is decried by prominent voices as hate speech, which must be suppressed. Those who disagree do not merely disagree–they are guilty.

Each year, I have students write an essay reflecting on the changing meanings of success they discern in the American literature they’ve read in class. The reading list stretches from the Puritans through the Transcendentalists. After their overview, I invite them to attempt a personal definition of success, as things seem to them at that moment. I ban the use of the phrase, “live life to the fullest.” It’s a good phrase, I guess, but it’s a cliche, and having said it they tend to thing they have said something, when they’ve only repeated an incantation. The education question is till Socrates’ “What is the good life?” and the answer may well be “to live life to the fullest,” but for that to be an actual thought requires some attention to the meaning of “good” and “fullness.” I suspect they are thinking of a house on a beach with a Mercedes parked out front, but they don’t actually say. They tend to stay in automatic words running on automatic tracks. They find thinking hard.

Indeed, humanity has always been a discordant mess, intellectually speaking. Half-thoughts, images, slogans swirl over some bottomless abyss of individual and collective consciousness, passing through transient form in mobs or elections as people see posters, hear slogans, stumble across cable news rants, catch twists of horrific events narrated in scraps through the honk and cough of ceaseless traffic.


The Land of Marriage is like the secret garden that the girl in the story discovered and tended with care, and “gave” to the local boy who understood plants and growing things, and they then both share it with the crippled heir, and the father who had abandoned that garden when he lost his wife returned to the world of the living. In the Land of Marriage, even a child knows that happiness can only be found by giving oneself away. In other lands, people live in abandoned houses, even rich people; and all around such places, hard, sterile, blank, old but not wise, there is hardly a sign of any such brave surrender. In other lands, flowers must serve a purpose. In the Land of Marriage, purposes must serve the flowers.
-Anthony Esolen

And yet, some things abide. Young men and women find each other, slipping past the uncertainties and anxieties they reveal themselves bit by bit and find they are not so alone. Babies are born, and new households established The most fundamental realities of human life are not like the testosterone-crazed skull-bashing contests posited by the Darwinists of old so much as an infant suckling at his mother’s breast. The deepest experience of countless persons is of awakening to life in warm arms surrounded by beings with soft voice inviting playful engagement. Young fathers and mothers imitate the forms they’ve found around them. In times not far past, those forms include barn raisings, quilting bees, PTA meetings, communal brandings, and dozens of other supports for social capital. We are at our best when we realize that we are members of each other.

All that used to be easier. In thousands of little ways—and some not so little ways—social capital has been dwindling. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contains graph after graph that show social capital measured in all sorts of ingenious ways declining since the mid-1960s. In much of the world today vast governments and transnational financial creatures see those primary human societies as blurred abstractions. Decisions are not made with an eye to the health of communities. More often, they are made to enhance the ability of those at the Center to monitor and control our lives. Meanwhile, more and more people report that they are lonely. More of us live alone than ever. Marriage seems risky—many kids are afraid to even say that it’s what they want.

This is the world governed, increasingly, by a network of spiritual directors, issuing fiats from Brussels, Paris or New York. We live in an age of extreme individualism, in which individuals have less and less to say about so many things that are important to a fulfilling life. How did the world come to be governed from afar, by corporate and government elites? The best telling of the scholarly version of the story may be James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. In the mid 18th Century, the philosophes gathered in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris to re-imagine the world–liberated from God and the ancien régime and led by libertines such as Rousseau. Billington traced the spread of revolutionary ideas through labyrinthine networks of Europe and beyond as the revolutionary motto–Liberty, Equality, Fraternity–spawned a thousand variants in France, Germany, Russia and, well, everywhere.

The story is too complex to know or tell precisely. The philosopher Eric Voegelin abandoned his magisterial 4,000 page manuscript for his History of Political Ideas when he realized that tracing influences through texts was “an ideological deformation of reality.” As the sacred texts of my own spiritual tribe explain, persons can receive insights through direct participation in consciousness, in the metaxis where we encounter both deity and adversaries of deity. A true history of ideas would include the phenomenological experiences of countless individuals. Ideas are not spread only by media and conversation. Revelation, both good and bad, has always occurred.

Still, this much is accurate: we have entered an age of ideology, of competing isms: communism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, progressivism, environmentalism, anarchism, fundamentalism, egalitarianism, fallibilism, gnosticism, utilitarianism, materialism, nativism, and nihilism. We are no longer ruled by warrior chiefs, priests, monarchs, or elected representatives–though many figureheads remain ceremonially in place. Now, a class of elite intellectuals, armed with PhDs, has gotten (imperfect) control of the governments, the media, the corporations and the schools. They see themselves as spiritual directors of the world, using technology and social sciences to govern by managing a complex ecosystem of propaganda, puppet leaders, regulations, bribes and threats. The optimism of such controllers was chastened a little by the embarrassment of the 20th Century, when instead of regenerating humanity into new forms invented by human reason, and instead of leaving behind the irrational and the superstitious, the rise of ideological empires delivered us to horrific tyrannies. Leaders came to power mouthing the beloved rhetoric of equality, and then they terrorized and decimated their own people. In a few decades, ideologues killed more people than millennia of religious militants had done.

Nevertheless, our resilient controllers have worked through the embarrassment. After all, where else can the world turn if not to its experts? So it turned out that politics was dirty and unpredictable, and a retreat to higher ground was needed. Fortunately, morality transcended it all. The rhetoric of universal rights took place on a loftier plane than the ancient arguments based in economic, geographical or ethnic interests. The endless discussions at the great conference tables in Vienna, The Hague, Cancun or Munich were animated by an often abstract quest for the justice of equal freedom for all. It was easy to feel that those who opposed such ideals were not mere opponents–they were guilty. Old moralities were barriers to progress, so the project was to debunk religious and provincial limits. Morality is dead. Long live morality.

But moral crusades unconstrained by ancient interdicts flirt with real dangers. The main patterns of the Age of Ideology were present from the beginning in the French Revolution. Reason was put forth as a self-flattering decoy, but events were driven by passion both for violence and for sex. Those who disapproved were devoured. The motto in practice was “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death,” as Dickens repeats with unsmiling sarcasm throughout The Tale of Two Cities. There is no real ambiguity about the nature of the revolution. The violence wasn’t confined to the Reign of Terror but defined the movement from beginning to end. In the September massacres of 1792, 1,200 prisoners were murdered in public orgies of rape and murder. One of the Queen’s friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was stripped naked and raped. Her breasts were cut off and the rest of her body mutilated and put on display. Parts of her body were discharged from a cannon and other parts were eaten. Her head was stuck on a pike and taken into a tavern where customers were asked to drink to her death. Yes, stripping the corrupt aristocracy of wealth and power felt good. Getting free of old laws and social constraints to indulge wherever in whatever also felt good. For modern ideologues, “transgressive” is often a term of praise.

Mobs have always been exciting, at least for those on the side feeling righteous. Both violence and religion partake of eros. The French Revolution isn’t quite intelligible without knowing the extent to which it was, in Austrian scholar Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddihen’s phrase, “a sanguinary sex orgy.” The Marquis de Sade was in tune with the spirit of the age, understanding “Nature” as the sole source of authority as to what may be praised or condemned. “The philosopher sates his appetites,” Sade argued, “without inquiring to know what his enjoyments may cost others, and without remorse.” He defended even sexual murder, if that was what a practitioner wanted. Feminist historian Camille Paglia saw that as the old morality lost prestige, “all the nasty daemonism of sexual instinct” popped up. “Individualism, the self unconstrained by society,” was a liberation from low into a “coarser servitude of constraint by nature.” Revolutionary ideology took its bearings from lofty talk of freedom, but in practice, this often meant arranging one’s life around violent urges. “Every road from Rousseau leads to Sade,” said Paglia. It isn’t really so far.

So began the Age of Ideology–of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of “enemies of the People.” Writing on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian naturalist Prince Petr Kropotkin noted that “what we learn from the study of the Great Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions.”

In America, the civil war of the sixties was fought on a succession of fronts, beginning with civil rights but morphing into the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. Religion continued to irk the ideologically-driven champions of liberation from old moralities. “Racist, sexist, antigay! Christian fascists, go away!” has been a popular chant among today’s street activists. They embrace the role of antichrists deliberately and proudly. They seem intent on proving that rejection of the Word leaves them with a language in which nothing can be known, in which all meaning is socially constructed and thus susceptible to deconstruction. Identity, racism, patriarchy, privilege, and gender—it’s all a matter of language and power, continuously updated. Those who run the institutions and control the language have no masters.

Those who do not have university sinecures may find life more daunting. Beings shorn of faith and without the support of divine love retain only the will to power, without the will to resist what Allan Bloom referred to as the “reanimalization of man.” Valentine’s Day is celebrated by Planned Parenthood as the kickoff of Condom Week. An accumulating mountain of social science evidence reveals the damage to families and children by those who have made selfish sexuality their priority. Reality is not on the side of the sexual revolution. “Children come into the world based on sexual choices of adults,” said Robert Oscar Lopez, and an ideology that tells adults to follow their urges without regard to the impact on children cannot be good. Good, like evil, exists as a complex ecosystem, and to consider the truth about children’s well-being would be to allow a very large and inconvenient camel to get its nose under the tent.

The majority of the Supreme Court who struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act claimed that there could be no reason for denying equivalence to same-sex couples except some irrational and immoral desire to harm those couples. “The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” said the Court. Their language was morally certain and morally absolute. James Kalb discussed such developments in “Sex and the Religion of Me” at First Things. “The new orthodoxy on homosexuality,” he said, “is about more than sex. It is an outcome of a profound change in traditional understandings of the world, the abolition of natural meanings and essences in favor of will and technique.” Neither nature nor society should hinder the individual’s autonomy to choose his or her own values. The external world is “raw material” for the liberated self to pursue its authentic purposes. What is authentic is understood as that which has its source in the self and its desires.

What is established is what Phillip Rieff has called an anti-culture–the view that is is forbidden to forbid, and that nothing should regulate the individual. What is suppressed is that humans do not “find themselves” in indeterminate space, but become human slowly, surrounded by family and community which educate them into structures of meaning which are needed if a person is to act and engage. We become autonomous by living with law, which we then internalize, accepting limits on desire and possibility. Without law we are not free, because the flip side of culture isn’t nature but barbarity. We are at the moment in a transitory period. The governing elite have restructured society to relieve parents of duties toward their children, many of whom cannot progress beyond adolescence, living in a moral chaos of disorganized desires, contradictory opinions, ceaseless demands for goods they could not earn but feel entitled to possess, and unyielding moral obtuseness. Because the state has yet to finalize its tutelary authority, such beings have liberty to cause most of our social troubles. Our future is likely to be brutal and violent.

Of course, most ordinary liberals are nice people who are dismayed by the crass and violent drift of contemporary culture. They don’t see it as good that increasing numbers of young men do not grow up, but seem lost in a simulacrum of digital games and pornography, imagining themselves masters of seven universes while unable to get a grown-up job and unwilling to commit, while increasing numbers of young women, often better educated and better paid than their potential mates, weary of a succession of boy friends who refuse to become manly feel unfulfilled as the biological clock ticks. They do not sense that they are choosing the materialistic decadence which advances on every front, closing in. They just want a nonjudgmental culture, often for quite personal reasons. They want the finger-pointing moralists to stay away. So they enact a society in which young people receive no very ennobling education. What they need to know of sex is taught by twenty-something clinicians, and the posters in the hall are about condoms and the self’s choices but not about courage or sacrifice or love. Some learn old truths from intelligent families or churches, but many find their deepest desires shaped by the stories and music of a commercial culture, biased toward that which titillates or excites. So we find ourselves surrounded more and more by people who are oblivious to the sort of order that is peace.

Mobs and gangs have been forming for some time, and yet the thinking of our masters has the quality of incantation. They cannot question whether it’s true that neutrality is wisdom, or even possible, or that the old laws were mere bigotry. Statements of traditional morality trigger a visceral revulsion within the minds of those indoctrinated in the morality of late modern or postmodern modernity. To have another impose the rules of his own or his tribe about something as personal as sexual desire feels sickening. “This reaction,” Kalb says, is best understood as “a taboo response.” It “springs from a sense that those who reject ‘marriage equality’—the view that same-sex and opposite-sex relations are interchangeable—are attacking what is most precious and sacred.” Earlier, the Court had ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that the uncultured self has the right to define the nature “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

It’s true that anyone can define for himself what is right only if there is nothing in Cosmos or Creation that says otherwise; thus the siren song of nihilism became the law of the land. That the imperial self’s demands so often have to do with sex and sexual identity is nothing new. Religion and sex are intimately intertwined in human consciousness, as even the champions of sexual freedom sometimes admit. The inventors of a new world order have largely given up attacking capitalism and have organized their forces in an epic struggle about sex. The religious question at the heart of the matter is to what extent a person can escape historical and natural patterns in a quest for self-creation amid unbounded personal choice. We are sexual beings, and our sexuality goes to the core of our existence. And though we share a carnal nature with other animals we are also endowed with a capacity for discourse that allows us through the word to engage in such sublime realities as justice. For such beings, sex becomes somewhat more than beasts rutting in the stable. For moderns, sex and discourse are joined in debates about gender–the demotion of nature to self-created identity.

The West’s classic view of humanity was expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

For such a being, sex can meld with love in a sublime quest for happily ever after that has been the theme of countless stories, which emerge from the universal sense that something more is at stake in matters of the heart than meaningless iterations of cycles of reproduction and survival.

It is in our “godlike” reason that we are most typically and fundamentally human. Our telos is to reach outward, our reason functioning as openness to experience of and conscious participation in the divine mystery which surrounds us. The philosopher Eric Voegelin linked the Greek understanding of reason, nous, to the Israelite understanding of spirit, pneuma, in their kindred recognitions that to be human is precisely to exist by reaching out in loving encounter with divine presence. Our sexual natures reinforce and deepen our fundamental experience of incompleteness, unable to fulfill ourselves alone. Biology and spirit are unified in a quest for love that completes and perfects our lives as biological, intellectual and spiritual creatures. The culture of marriage and family was, at its best, developed through such realizations. It represented humanity’s best hope against alienation and isolation. Anthony Esolen reprised that argument in Defending Marriage:

We are all interested in marriage, that is, we all have a stake in it, because through marriage, or through actions that should have been performed within the haven of marriage, we have all come into being. It isn’t simply a reflex of the emotions of the man and woman. It is the act of renewal. It brings together this family of blood relations with that family of blood relations, natural relations, the kinfolk that lay just claims upon us because we and they share some of the same history, the same cousins, even the same eyes and ears and noses. A marriage marries families, and it is the family, and not the abstracted autonomous individual, that is the foundation for the community.

In other words, were it not for children, there would be no reason for weddings at all, since there is no reason for the community to take note of whether John and Mike or any two marriageable people have been arguing lately or have patched up their differences, regardless of any behavior they may be indulging in when the doors are closed. But the community does have a powerful interest in what used to be called “public morals,” since these impinge upon the welfare of the family, and thus upon the community’s health and survival. It is precisely because the marital act is a child-making act that the community not only may protect it by the fencing of law and custom; it has a duty to do so, to protect itself and the most vulnerable of its members.

One might expect a nation of sexual individualists to educate children to go their own bold ways; but that cannot be, because there is no fully realized human individual apart from a family. So, paradoxically, such a nation leans towards banishing the family from rightful authority over the schools, which then become standardized, like factories. “Sparta,” [a totalitarian regime which seized boys from their homes to live in barracks] “presents to us no illustration of an educational philosophy for a Christian people.” Real education is of persons made in the image of God, and cannot be effected “by contract or in the aggregate. In the family alone, and by or on the immediate responsibility of those parents by whom were imposed upon each child from before its birth the physical, mental, and spiritual conditions on which all true after education must be based, can an ideal early education be conducted.” Schools and schoolteachers there may be, but they must “be regarded only as the representative deputy or the substitute for the family.”

Those of us alive at this historical moment have been born into a vast argument that we did not make and very likely will not resolve. It’s a religious war waged in its deepest terms at the source of what it means to be human. The main thing each of us may decide is what side we are on. It’s a crucial choice. Jame Kalb suggests that we not near the end of the conflicts:

Cultural debates are always conflicts between orthodoxies. Our own debates about sex, marriage, and family must be understood and judged as exactly that rather than misconceived as a conflict between irrational dogma on one side and tolerance and freedom on the other. This is becoming easier to do, now that a whole generation has been raised under the regime of political correctness. A backlash against that regime is already visible among young people. What is needed is to convert dissatisfaction from cynical abandonment of concern with public affairs into reasoned and constructive engagement. It appears, then, that the culture war is not over. Understood for what it is, it has hardly begun.

In the past, all sides have waged their moral crusades by getting control of law–which is to say, by using force and coercion. The hard won wisdom of Westphalia, we might remember, was a way of moving on from decades of sectarian battle through a kind of federalism, in which each jurisdiction would be left to make its own laws about religious matters. It was amid competing visions, none of which could achieve hegemony, that Europe’s institutions of political freedom took form. We tend to do our best thinking when we are stymied by opposition we cannot overcome.

The work of the world now is, I believe, what it has always been–for humanity to continue what Adam and Eve began, to know good from evil and to choose between them. It’s a complex knowing.

As with the Jacobins, when morality becomes an instrument of power it destroys the world and itself. At the moment, the controllers are ascendant, fancying themselves spiritual directors of the world, establishing a monopoly on moral judgment. Chantal Delsol suggests that they “have begun to instrumentalize morality in order to make it a political weapon.” That process will undoubtedly continue, and to the extent that it does, its success will be partial and temporary. The political, unlike the moral, cannot be universal.

My spiritual tribe teaches that the only tools available to morality are ‘persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned.’ Delsol notes that “universal values are freely expressed norms whose realization would allow humanity to freely advance toward the summits–in a manner of speaking, to become more human.” It is useless and destructive for morality to use the tools of politics, betraying its own norms through the use of force. Camus understood that now the struggle must be “between violence and preaching.” Morality does not impose itself; it persuades. There will be blood, to be sure, but the right will prevail with words and spirit.

It’s slow work, and it involves living as an example as well as uttering words. Patience and long-suffering are real necessities for those who choose to act in the realm of morality rather than in that of politics. We cannot will the good immediately, because for each of us, understanding the vision of the good, and disentangling it from evil and all its deceptions, has required the mediation of time. Each of us has, through much living, reflected on human experience, what has been done and how it has turned out. We have struggled to understand some of what we now see clearly. The time was not incident. We learn slowly–here a little and there a little. So those who would lead must teach and those who would teach must wait, knowing that such a life–trying to learn how to live life to the fullest–is what time is for. And there is still time.

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


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

A few thoughts on planning an oral history project in China

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

Hunan Library

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

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

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

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

The real work

Weiming Tu

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

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

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

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

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

Linking practice to big ideas

Yuelu Academy

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

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

I believe they can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting at what it means

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twentieth century happened to us all.

Beyond Good and Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spread of ideology and dogmatism in the school reform movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is justice present, or forever becoming?

scales of justice

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

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

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

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