Escape from nowhere: more reasons for community-centered schools

Higher IQs but lower test scores? What’s going on?

From World War II until now the average American IQ rose by more than 15 points. That’s a startling change. “The average child in 2010 would have been exceptional in 1950,” said Marc Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things in “The troubling trend of cultural IQ.”

Kids are smarter now but they can’t read as well (as they did in 1950).

What’s even more startling is that as those historic gains were occurring, school performance as measured by standardized tests plummeted. Both college professors and employers are struck by how many students and younger workers are “terribly deficient” in basic knowledge and skills. Although test scores have been quite static since 1980 (despite massive commotion due to a series of “reform” initiatives beginning in 1983), from 1962 to 1980 scores on the SAT verbal exam dropped a shocking fifty-four points. That loss has never been made up.

The number of incoming college freshmen who need remediation has kept climbing, and the numbers are now 10% at selective schools, 30% at typical colleges and 60% at two-year schools. The National Assessment of Educational Project (NAEP), our best benchmark for educational improvement or decline, has shown small gains in basic reading skills by young children but these do not result in measurable gains by high schoolers trying to read adult literature. Bauerlein said this is because “the reading tests include passages with diction exceeding the gains made in elementary school.”

So why haven’t large gains in IQ led to any improvement in academic performance? Bauerlein said this is easily understood by drilling down into the IQ data. The IQ tests consist of several subtests that measure different mental functions, such as memory or attention or spatial reasoning. Over the years, changes in various subtests have varied dramatically. What is crucial to understand in relation to academic proficiency is that students’ performance on the subtests for arithmetic and vocabulary have been essentially flat. This is consistent with what the NAEP shows. From 1972 to 2002 general information knowledge scores showed no improvement and vocabulary moved only minimally. Students today are no more capable of comprehending difficult texts than they were before decades “school reform.” Most are not ready for either college or the modern workplace.

What the school reform movement has made clear—after the initiatives and the remedial classes and the revised curriculums and the literacy coaches—is that there are no magic bullets or quick fixes. We should think harder and commit more deeply, maybe, because that verbal reasoning that fell in the 1960s and 1970s is vital for civic engagement in any setting amid the marketplace of ideas, including universities and the professional and managerial workplace. As things stand now, those higher IQ scores are not helping people to evaluate the rhetoric of a Barrack Obama or a Donald Trump or to perceive the veiled bias of a news story or to comprehend the moral distance between the competing claims of pop culture movements. They aren’t helping mothers and fathers find wisdom amid the sea of blarney that washes over citizens in the information age.

Youth culture can isolate adolescents from adult voices.

Another interesting fact that Bauerlein points out is that adults have shown gains in knowledge and vocabulary as measured by the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale(WAIS). This is most likely because many of them have attended college and took classes in such core subjects as literature, history, psychology, economics, and science. This raises the obvious question why then haven’t their children shown gains? We would expect larger vocabularies and more knowledge to affect both the reading and the conversation of adults, which should create a richer intellectual context in the home for their children. So we would expect rising rather than flat test scores for their children.

Why hasn’t this happened? One interesting possibility is that high schools themselves isolate teenagers from the adult intelligence that might otherwise surround them. According to New Zealand social scientist James R. Flynn (whose studies brought widespread attention to the rising IQ scores), since the 1950s a teenage subculture has developed that insulates young people from “adult speak.” Adolescents hang out together, adopting their own idiom, fashions, mores, movies, and music—creating what the great education researcher James Coleman called “the adolescent society.” An uncharitable observation would be that our teenagers are failing to learn very much because they are cooped up in high schools all day.

In 1909, fewer than 9% of Americans graduated from high school, the rest moving quickly into an adult-centered society. But by 1960, about 70% of teenagers stayed in high school all four years. They saw each other all day in classes, in the halls, at the cafeteria, and they made after-school plans. A youth subculture formed and the authority of adult voices waned. This matters because the lingo of youth culture is less sophisticated than adult conversation, less rich in the content knowledge grownups use to make sense of their world. Teens immersed in youth culture tend to have dawdling vocabularies and thin knowledge of art, politics, economics, history, religion, science and philosophy. The language and the facts such young people most need to act intelligently in the world (not to mention to score well on standardized tests) is not often present in the company that dominates in their world.

Some schools mimic the liturgy of rock concerts in their design of assemblies.

Many schools no longer offer much resistance to youth culture. Visiting a school will make it clear to which schools are more shaped and formed by pop culture than they are to whatever academic communities survive in our universities. Many schools are adopting a marketing approach, trying to offer whatever “sells” in the youth market. This makes perfect sense to anyone whose main intellectual context is pop culture. Some administrators have begun to mimic the liturgical form of the rock concert for school assemblies. The lobbies are full of propaganda, somewhat resembling the Capitol in the Hunger Games films.

In response to a widely perceived sorry state of affairs, the goal of the Common Core State Standards, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative, was to prepare low- and middle-income students for the rigors of a college education. Predictably, it crashed upon the reality that a college curriculum is presented in language beyond the reach of many students. Slogans such as “every child can learn” and “no child left behind” have no effect on the fact that the College Board sets college readiness at a score of 1180 on the SAT but we’ve only managed to get 10% of seventeen-year-olds reading at that level.

We push college for everyone, so now more students than ever begin college, but graduation rates have been stuck in the low thirties, suggesting an intellectual barrier we have learned no way to breach. So large numbers of first-year students pay college-level fees for remedial courses but cannot stick it out till graduation, leaving without diplomas but with unconscionable levels of debt.

Is hope justified?

Is there a solution? Bauerlein doesn’t offer one. He observed that “parents and mentors need to spend more time conversing with youths, reading the newspapers together, going on cultural outings. . . and adding grownup affairs to the menu of adolescence.” But he recognizes that saying such things isn’t a solution. “The parents and mentors inclined to heed our exhortations probably already recognize the problem and strive to restrain it—they don’t need our advice—while the others haven’t the space to listen or the disposition to act.”

American society has operated for decades now on flawed understandings of is best for adolescents. “Few things in this world,” he said, “have stronger momentum than cultural mores and values that settle into people’s heads as the way reality operates.”

The great need, to the extent that Bauerlein is right, is for teens to spend more time talking with adults about grownup matters. I’m at least as skeptical as Bauerlein is that we are going to get to such a society—where high schoolers performance is a match for their IQs—anytime soon. I’m quite sure that yet another argument with reasons and statistics is not going to have much influence on schools. The trouble, if that’s what it is, arises in the culture from which today’s Americans get their notions of what is worth wanting, what is worthy of effort and what the point of all our striving might be. A rock star influences pop culture, and thus school climate, more by intoning “We don’t need no education” than a professor publishing the latest article in Educational Leadership.

My personal experience

Students in St. Ignatius, Montana, interview Hermann Detert in his home as part of an oral history project.

I’ve earned my skepticism through hard work and money spent. Over a dozen years I spent more than $8 million promoting a different vision for schooling. Working with the Library of Congress and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, I directed the Heritage Project, enlisting 34 Montana high schools to reconnect high schoolers with the people in the community who were doing the adult work of building and sustaining communities. The heart of the project was having those adults assist students with collaborative research on real concerns in real places. The way forward was to escape from nowhere—the abstract curriculum and impersonal teaching championed by people from away, sitting at a big table in the convention center.

I wrote a book based on that experience. At that time, I talked about “community-centered” teaching practices (which were a form of pushback at the “student-centered” teaching that dominated professional training at the time). The romantic urge to cater to the fast-moving attention of high schoolers was very strong among teachers and administrators, and in many discussions about how to advance the game I encountered little discussion about including students in the circle of grownups talking about larger and more enduring concerns. We have too many adults trying to join the conversations in youth culture rather than trying to bring teenagers into adult conversations. Eudora Welty wisely observed that “To cater to is not to serve, and it’s not to love very well either.”

I began with a lot of optimism. “Montana’s future is being decided right now in its 176 public high schools,” I said. “They are foundational institutions. If they fail, none of our economic or cultural developments will succeed.” My optimism grew in part from an “integrating vision” that I observed growing in the nation—one that both Democrats and Republicans supported. I thought I saw a grassroots movement spreading through America, going by many names: character education, civic education, service learning, and place-based instruction. I tried to unify these various movements under the phrase “community-centered teaching.” At the heart of these various approaches was a simple and unifying insight: we cannot separate education from the community (a corollary was that community development and school improvement are two sides of the same coin).

It seemed to me that various strands of this insight led to an equally simple conclusion: we can revitalize our high schools by making the study of community their central organizing principle. This would mean offering classes that study our civic institutions as they have developed in time and as they are practiced in the real world of our particular communities. It would mean studying history and ecology by including local illustrations. It would mean providing every student opportunities to study ways the local community interacts with its ecological, geographical, business, and historical contexts. Every subject could inject real life into its curriculum by considering what the community had to teach–either by good example or bad. It’s a truism that the only place the universe can actually be studied is locally. There need be nothing narrow or parochial about local studies (though the danger of failing to link local findings to the larger issues is real).

Such studies could go beyond textbook abstractions into detailed examinations of such topics as the role of forests in local economies and in watersheds or the engineering constraints for local water and sewer systems. Working with state and local agencies, students might conduct feasibility studies for businesses or sociological comparisons of varying cultural practices and their impacts on health. They might study historical effects of immigration or infrastructure  projects on particular people.

It was hardly a secret that such approaches had been called for repeatedly by leading educational researchers. High school students are at the developmental stage when they are beginning to form communities, which is why they tend to be so cliquish. The most important educational need of adolescents is to be guided into intelligent explorations of community in all its aspects. One great risk of youth in today’s America is intellectual and spiritual capture by one of the unintelligent communities, real or virtuous, that surround young people and compete for their allegiance. Gangs are only the worst example. Young people are hard-wired to join, and if intelligent communities are unavailable or unattractive then stupid ones will do.

Furthermore, we know that classroom instruction unrelated to real situations often does not lead to understanding or the ability to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the world. It was my faith, confirmed by the work of many excellent teachers, that when young people use academic skills to analyze real issues in the world they know, they move from dull abstractions to deep learning.

They also create social capital. Through the 1950s, one teacher in Pennsylvania connected his high school seniors with local officials to research aspects of the local community. Thirty years later researchers tracked down these students to see whether the experience had measurable long-term effects. The results were stunning. Students who had been involved in local studies in high school were four times more likely than other students to have joined voluntary associations.
By tackling the real issues in their communities alongside committed adults, those students felt a part of the community. They learned to find meaning in shared work. They developed a commitment to civic engagement that lasted throughout their lives. “Imagine the impact on Montana’s future if every student in every high school had similar opportunities,” I said.

I thought of it as a beginning. As schools became more community-centered, communities would become more education-centered. All our agencies, public and private, could have parts to play. Television stations, artists, newspapers, tribal elders, museums, parks, clubs, businesses, chambers of commerce, grandparents, and cowboys could re-examine their roles, seeing what resources they could contribute to the work of engaging our youth in understanding the world in which we make our place. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch: lots of agencies have already figured out they can’t fulfill their missions without educating the public.

What we needed, I thought, was leadership in building suitable frameworks for collaboration. The phrase “citizen science” wasn’t common now, but today I would point to Cornell’s fabulous eBird project, which is channeling the data provided by an army of nonscientists birders into huge computers that are forming a much more complex and fluid picture of our world that has been available before. We need more such projects, with support for high school teachers. I suggested that university researchers could guide rigorous research projects into local communities and ecosystems, using high school classes in a variety of ways. This would involve training teachers, but also guiding local projects and sending graduate students into the field to help students gather, organize, preserve and interpret their field data.

Scientists with the Long-Term Ecological Research Network had used students to assist with cutting-edge scientific problems. In one project, classes at a high school in Seattle and at one in Tuscaloosa took measurements of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, total dissolved solids, total bacteria counts and net primary production while a group of scientists measured the same variables at a pristine site in Antarctica. This allowed researchers both to follow what was happening at each site and to make cross-site comparisons.

The Library of Congress through my work gained experience using high school students to collect oral histories of veterans throughout the nation. Their experiences with the Heritage Project led them to create the ongoing Veterans History Project, modeled on the work we did in Montana. High schools and other community organizations are invited to conduct historical research and document contemporary aspects of community life for the Library’s permanent collections. At that time, I said that “Our educational leaders should be talking in earnest about what research can be undertaken in collaboration with high schools, and our communities should be talking in earnest about what informational infrastructure they need to build, starting with the schools.”

The vision entertained the possibility that when most high schools in Montana were involved in linked, statewide research projects through the universities, our libraries and museums and other cultural institutions as well as our land management agencies, our students’ educations would get a powerful boost at the same time we would all get useful information in an accessible form. Most information in the information age is local because we need detailed local knowledge for our own purposes. Foresters prepare prescriptions for specific sites, based on careful study and historical data. Entrepreneurs conduct original research that closely examines possibilities at particular locations. I know what roses grow well in that spot just north of the two blue spruce trees.

“Montana, and every community in Montana, needs to study itself extensively if it is to thrive,” I said. “No one else will do it for us.”

It’s how we survive and thrive

To a great degree, the issue is bigger than what we usually mean by “education.” The global economy doesn’t—can’t—care what happens here, though it’s become a habit to associate education with the global economy—mainly because the people who benefit most from globalization also tend to be manipulating our laws and institutions for their own benefit. We need to remember that the global economy is never going to have a place for all of us. This will become more and more the case as the robotics revolution proceeds. The global economy needs to be augmented by robust local economies, and it is in the interactions of local economies that we develop our social connections, find the dignified and important roles that make our lives matter, decrease our vulnerability to the restructurings that are routine in global markets, and make it more likely that we will be able to find fresh vegetables and plumbers.

“Most of Montana’s economy will always be local,” I said. “More than anything, Montana needs a generation of educated young people who understand the places they live and want to stay, and who have an entrepreneurial spirit, confidence, and commitment to finding new ways to live well. To develop a thriving local economy, we need to develop a thriving local culture of people who are self-aware, committed to mutual support, and prepared to inquire and learn.

“By organizing our high schools around local studies, we can create what we need.” I still think that’s true. And more than ever, I think saying so is unlikely to make much difference. But then, some things take time.

Lessons Learned

My experiences have suggested several insights: none of them earth-shaking:

A student visits with philanthropist Art Ortenberg at a Youth Heritage Festival in the state capitol. The active participation of Art, and his wife Liz Claiborne, was helpful for getting the state’s major cultural institutions on board, including the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, and the Montana Arts Council.

1. The imprimatur of prestigious institutions such as the Library of Congress affects school administrators in ways that tightly reasoned professional publications with footnotes and everything do not. School-level leaders adopt programs more readily when doing so involves meeting famous people or hearing that they may find opportunities for professional advancement. Schools are more often led by careerists than by scholars (though the two categories are rarely mutually exclusive).

2. Prestigious institutions are hard to enlist in education initiatives but are not so hard to bribe with promises of foundation money and “public/private partnerships.” Art Ortenberg suggested approaching recalcitrant officials by using “the force of money.”

3. Students believe things are important more readily when prestigious leaders say they are important. They will work harder for recognition (and the chance to travel) than they will to raise their SAT scores. Great things happen when they are invited to do something that matters, supported as they work at it, and then recognized far and wide for what they accomplish.

4. It’s best to work with only with teachers who have voluntarily joined. Teachers who are only pretending to be on board (a routine schoolish tactic) are like sludge in the machinery. They use up scarce resources (mostly time) to no real purpose.

5. Teachers respond to leadership from beyond the school best when they are led to form enduring teams with considerable control over ways to incorporate the principles espoused by the outside agency. Regular face-to-face meetings with the other team members is a necessary part of the work.

6. Developing the vision and learning how to collaborate are the “secrets” to accomplishing enduring change. They remain secrets in spite of being broadcast from rooftops because both are hard to do well. Everything worth doing is difficult, at first and for a while.

7. High schools aren’t actually necessary for the real work. It’s just that right now that’s where the young people are. This is helpful to keep in mind now that there are signs that they are dissolving.

 

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.

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.

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.

By the dim and flaring lamps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving a remnant: most children left behind?

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority--grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts--should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority–the grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts–should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

The idea of a “saving remnant” recurs throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Such remnants are presented as small groups that understand, apply and carry forward the truths and practices of a higher order of community. John in the New Testament quotes Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore, only a remnant will be saved.” The idea suggests that, at times, the most important knowledge will be lost to the world, and most children will be left behind….In our pop culture, the current “big” story that might treat this theme is the Hollywood retelling of the Noah story. It will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The Athens that Socrates and Plato knew was similar to the society Noah left behind. Athens in their lifetimes was on the brink of a destruction that did in fact occur. It was a time and place of political turmoil, corrupt politicians, and a virulent desire for individual gain, an unbridled lust for wealth and power. In that dark time, Plato also turned to the idea of a saving remnant, trying to imagine how correct principles might survive in such an ignorant and nihilistic society:

[Socrates:] . . . the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant: perchance some noble and well-educated person, detained by exile in her service, who in the absence of corrupting influences remains devoted to her; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns and neglects; and there may be a gifted few who leave the arts, which they justly despise, and come to her. . . .Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen enough of the madness of the multitude; and they know that no politician is honest, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side they may fight and be saved. Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts –he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing that he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and reflecting that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way. He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes. –-The Republic

In our own time, Alasdair MacIntyre concluded After Virtue, one of the most influential works of moral philosophy in recent decades, with a suggestion that, at this point, the good life might be preserved by small communities that withdraw from the larger society in order to keep alive among themselves the ideals of civility and morality:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.

Needless to say, such visions are anathema to today’s heirs of the revolutionary ideologies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who envision an egalitarian society formed by subjecting everyone to universal principles, as discerned and articulated by a governing elite. One hallmark of their thinking is the idea that everyone needs to ordered into one large and centrally-administered system. Their recurrent attempts to ban and suppress dissent grows out of their sense that their plans won’t work if those outside the inner party are allowed to leave the plantation.

The obvious products of this vision include such laws as “No Child Left Behind,” which moves toward a nationalized and centralized education system and leads to the Common Core State Standards, which begin to put teeth in the vision by instituting a national testing regime, and by “The Affordable Health Care” law which in a similar way brings much of the health care industry under the control of a governing elite. The original founding vision of America, which George Washington and others communicated by citing Micah, is quite distant: “. . .they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

The standards movement as it has played out in the state where I work, Montana, has communicated a fundamental incoherence: while the law has promoted the belief that literacy and numeracy come first–since they are the subjects that are actually tested and reported–this has been unaccompanied by any clarity about how schools might accomplish significant improvements in these subjects.

In the case of English, this has remained one class among six or seven in each student’s schedule–which amounts to less than an hour a day for most students. Within that hour, teachers are expected to teach the full range of writing, from basic conventions such as pronoun antecedent errors and parallel structure, to proficient writing in several modes–persuasive, narrative, and expository–demonstrating their ability to write essays comparing various works, exhibiting insight into how point of view affect structure and meaning, and so on. That would be quite a lot, but the standards don’t stop there. Students are also expected to gain considerable background in English and American literature from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries in all the major genres, including poetry, fiction, and the varieties of nonfiction.

Where are the serious conversations about how such ideals might be realized? They do not seem to be occurring within the one, big system.

Literature never failed us; we abandoned it

Destroyed Books

The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository has been abandoned since a fire struck the building. It’s a metaphor.

Mark Bauerlein, English prof at Emory University, makes precisely the point that for me lies at the center of the big, slow-motion cultural conversation about the death of English as an academic discipline. Teachers who could have seen themselves as stewards of a great tradition, who could have served that tradition and young people by learning and passing on the best that has been said and done, instead began to fancy themselves as transformative intellectuals, possessors of precisely the verbal skills needed for success in a hyperpoliticized age. They talk about empowerment and skills and the future. They do not, often, talk in any intimate and profound way about particular works of literature, or what such works reveal about who and where we may be.

After summarizing a few of the many defenses made for the humanities of late, Bauerlein focuses on the important detail:

These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21), Carlo Rotella claims that the humanities instill a “suite of talents” that include “assimilating and organizing large, complex bodies of information,” but he doesn’t tie that installation to any particular works of art. These pro-humanities documents drop a “Proust” and “Dickens” here and there, but little more. The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.

Literature has obviously been in decline in schools for years–but there are signs it’s thriving outside the academy through new media such as the large catalog of downloadable audio lectures available from The Great Courses. There is a large audience–though not a universal one–for intelligent discourse about significant literary works.

This is not just bad for literature–it’s been a disaster for the culture, which is now trying to “humanize” young people with dismal programs such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports programs pushed by the USDE and adopted by many states, according to which the purpose of life is “success” understood mainly in materials terms and the method is compliance with authority. Low-level behavioral psychology (used to keep order in prisons and to train puppies) has become the official psychology, in many schools.

A lot has happened to American education in the past five or six decades, and there is no quick turnaround. What is not needed is a new national program, with workshop gurus and posters and buzzwords. The belief that widespread problems must lead to large-scale “solutions” is part of what ails us. What is needed are many individuals, spending time reading–thinking about current difficulties with the best authors of the past and present–and then discussing those particular works with others who are also responding to a troubled world by seeking deeper insight into history and human nature by regular engagement with the best books. It isn’t necessary that everyone do this, but it’s of vital importance that some do.

The third reality: a brief introduction

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

The way of the teacher

No one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them, and having been taught, we have to freely choose them.

The third reality is peace–not as a sort of slumber but as an all-consuming engagement possible only through love. The third reality is living in and through love. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, which it both includes and transcends.

Societies of peace necessarily are created and sustained through the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. The economy for those living in the third reality is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants–promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What may be given is as important as what will be received as, for those in love, giving and receiving merge into being.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. We all have something to fear from justice. Who has not done that he ought not to have done? We by trespassing and being trespassed. We live here in history, where being wronged is the human condition.

Those who walk the road to peace find at fork after fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find themselves getting more alone as they go. It’s an easy road and many have grown accustomed to it.

Returning becomes the daily work of those who would know peace. Again and again they find it is necessary to turn back and start over. They study mercy, wanting first to receive it as they learn to offer it.

A separate peace

Having recognized that they have made mistakes, they tend to be forgiving. A Separate Peace was popular in high school classrooms for many years, in a past that now seems almost a foreign country. Teenagers are in a stage of life where friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence. The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–-other people in general–-exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. We read other people with the same cognitive tools we use to read fiction. We hear scraps of dialogue, note expressions and gestures, overhear gossip–and we make inferences and interpretations.

Sometimes our inferences are wrong. In the course of A Separate Peace, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas.

The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

Anyone who spends much time with adolescents–or other people–will recognize how close friendship and rivalry often are. The fictive Phineas that exists only in Gene’s mind isn’t his first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he knew the truth. When he learns that, however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior, it was still only a theory, and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene told himself a lie about another person, then believed it, and then acted on it. His accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence leads to the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. Generally, we learn to recognize this common pattern most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Peace in a world with enemies

Sometimes we lose awareness of the third reality because it’s so easy and somehow gratifying to reading conscious evil intent into the actions of others–especially rivals. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace as regards how others treat us, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it often is, then we easily find ourselves imagining strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy ever known. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a thinner and paler reality–a stark place without enough air. The true realist, seeing a reality as deep as the night sky, knows that nothing else will work.

People who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well find temporal suffering as he lives by such a policy.

All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations, taking our turns at being both a teacher and a learner. When people act badly, the teacher assumes the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we choose to think that a person acting badly doesn’t understand. A person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed so much he needs to be rescued. If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so he teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the only way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by righteous judgement and just punishment. But as every good parent understands, punishment can be delivered in a spirit of love.

Two ways, one road

The peacemaker learns that there really are only two ways: one leads toward greater life–which is greater connection and greater order–and the other leads toward greater disorder–which involves separation and death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can become one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate and easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down the continuum but will tend to do so without steady work to avoid it. This is the work of peace: willing and keeping complex human orders.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity. Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. Peace is hard work, and a peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption. Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.

Which stories?

As we find the stories, both in books and in living, that we will pass on, we need to remember that stories that only evoke fear are not as good as those that also teach an understanding of principles, and those that only clarify principles are not as good as those that in addition encourage peace. More specifically, a story that leads me to take delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself, and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family, and one that shows me how to feel compassion for all of humanity is better than one that leads me to think of outsiders as enemies. One that instills a reverence for all of creation is about as good as stories get.

The best stories allow us to glimpse the largest reality, and they give us courage to work at joining. The right stories help us understand ways of living that respect the meaning and integrity of each part.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within, a harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we have to surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of the order that existed before them. To teach them about peace we surround them to the extent we can with a peace we’ve made, showing them how it works and what the rules are and why they should love it.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. But no matter how urgent things appear around us, our first responsibility is to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the contention and conflict we had hoped to resolve. We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have made.