Was the world a better place 100 years ago? Glenn Reynolds links to the photographic evidence, but one of the things I enjoy about many films set in the early 20th Century is how beautiful that world seems to be. This includes movies as diverse as the Harry Potter films to the television productions of Downton Abby and Malick’s visually sublime Days of Heaven.
Rod Treher argues that conservatives need to do better at presenting their views through stories.
Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”
Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.
Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”
Dreher argues that ordinary people understand policies through stories. This is not a new idea. James Davison Hunter critiques it in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. He points out that Evangelicals “have been distinguished by their massive cultural output in books and book publishing, magazines, radio, music, bible studies, theology, Christian education at all levels, and so on” (29). This cultural production has not ended their cultural marginalization, and Hunter offers eleven propositions that might explain why creating conservative stories probably won’t lead to a conservative renaissance in the larger culture.
One of these is that “cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.” Though sometimes economic revolutions and social movements appear to result from mobilizing ordinary people, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and managment within spheres of social life. Even where impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” (41).
Dreher notes correctly that “Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.” It probably is a precursor. But the distance that will remain to be traveled even if conservatives develop powerful stories is daunting. Dreher stops short of arguing that stories are sufficient to cause widespread changes in the culture, and if Hunter is correct, such change usually requires the participation of elites and their institutions:
…cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change—period. They are certainly resistant to the mere exertion of will by ordinary individuals or by a well-organized movement of individuals. The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that “in one generation, you change the whole culture”13 is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in culture typically take place over the course of multiple generations. The most profound changes in culture can be seen first as they penetrate into the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it then penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organize social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.
In this light, we can see that evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts—if effective—all bring about good ends: changed hearts and minds, changed laws, changed social behaviors. But they don’t directly influence the moral fabric that makes these changes sustainable over the long term, sustainable precisely because they are implicit and as implicit, they form the presuppositional base of social life. Only indirectly do evangelism, politics, and social reform effect language, symbol, narrative, myth, and the institutions of formation that change the DNA of a civilization.
Imagine, in this regard, a genuine “third great awakening” occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society—the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church—revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.
Dreher holds out the hope that “if conservatives become better storytellers, they might save the culture.” They might, but I suspect a more useful goal might be to strengthen families and churches, to withstand onslaughts from a dominant culture than knows how to care for neither.
When the old Salish got horses, their sense of place changed. Their minds were re-shaped by a larger geography of possibility.
For centuries the Salish who lived where I live now had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass. As the air became colder, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.
These rhythms and movements were aspects of mind for the old Salish.
When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was transformed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors, able to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes.
They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo and the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility.
In changing the way they related to place, they changed their minds.
Rule of law is, in essence, rule by principle. To make a law that will be applied equally to all members of a society, it’s necessary for them to abstract from the rather messy circumstances we always face to some more universal principle that most will consent to be governed by. When we encounter outcomes we don’t like, the work is to think more deeply and more clearly–to get beyond thinking merely “I don’t like this” to articulate a principle that would rectify the trouble while serving as a barrier to similar troubles in the future. That’s asking an awful lot of people, both intellectually and ethically.
Allotment on the Flathead Reservation and the consequent opening of the reservation to settlers who were not tribal members was, I think, an abusive use of law, orchestrated by powerful men for their own gain. Law is always susceptible to such abuse and it’s never hard to find examples of it.
I think it’s necessary to study and understand such abuses. We need to know what we are up against if we are committed to continuing the experiment. For me, the essential question is whether it is possible to subordinate power to principle. Can we encode our best understandings of justice into laws, and can we then use those laws to constrain the powerful and the greedy, who are always with us? Can we continue moving toward a world in which, ultimately, philosophy and ethics trump money and force?
I think the answer we get from the history of the nation’s dealings with natives is mixed.
We can find enough examples of low behavior and bad faith stratagems to satisfy a hundred Howard Zinns, who want to see the American experiment become something quite different. Such tawdry dealings are, to a great extent, the same old same old of human history. People with the power to do so gratifying their own appetites and lusts at the expense of weaker people is not uniquely American. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing we need to study American history to learn or understand. It was ancient before Columbus ever raised a sail.
What was somewhat new and somewhat different was that in America, middle ranking bureaucrats were dispatched to the wilderness to negotiate terms with small bands of hunter-gatherers, and that a hundred and fifty years later those sometimes vague and sketchy agreements are still taken seriously by the highest courts in the land, and that sometimes millions of dollars change hands based on some judge’s ruling about what those old words must mean.
There’s something noble in that, something hopeful. I think it would be a shame–and bad history–to teach what Joseph Dixon did without also attempting to make clear that he wasn’t the whole story.
Part of my teaching commitment is to increase young people’s ability to think at the level of principle. It’s something–but not enough–to feel bad when we see bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. That’s something–where we start. It’s not, I hope, where we stop.
“Yai Ya!” my grandson called, as he opened the kitchen door and walked in. This happened nearly daily or several times a day once he was old enough to walk the few blocks from his parents’ house to ours. He didn’t knock, of course. And he was partly calling his grandmother and partly just announcing he had arrived. It was partly greeting and partly invitation. He was here! Where we were! It was good.
How many generations of young Salish boys showed up at their grandparents’ homes with just those words? How long had those syllables been echoing, more or less unchanged, through the abodes of people living in this valley? This place?
Place is a tricky concept to nail down, but I tend to enjoy all the various ways people have tried. They end up talking about the central realities of human life–story, memory, kin, tradition, culture and land. My grandson traces his heritage in this place we share back, on his father’s side, into the “time immemorial” that the Salish like to talk about. I trace my own heritage back to Kansas, and then to Maryland and then to the Irish highlands on one side, and back to Utah, and then Ohio, then Massachusetts and then to the London slums on the other. Those connections, of course, are also part of my grandson’s history.
In Remembering the Songs, I found the segment on Jerome Vanderburg, a Salish man who made his home a place of music, held my attention in the most interesting ways. I knew Jerome’s name and had seen him, but I didn’t know him personally and I knew little about him. My own children grew up alongside a girl, our next door neighbor, who was a relative of his–probably either a granddaughter or a niece. So watching the film was a little like eavesdropping a bit on a neighbor here–filling in the human world around me with a bit more detail, a bit more story, making the place I live a little deeper and richer.
But how to use it in the classroom?
I would start with how recognizable as a person Jerome is to me. My own family–both my mother’s and father’s lines, are full of people who found the meaning of life in family and noncareerist passions and enjoyments, such as music. My grandfather lost his farm during the Great Depression–and I heard somewhat vague expressions of disgust at the ways of bankers and government functionaries, who, I was given to understand, cared a great deal about money but about “the little guy” not at all. But such were not the main story in life. My people didn’t dwell on it. They found another farm–not as good and without reliable water–the dry farm, they called it–and survived, finding life’s satisfactions in family events and in nature.
I don’t think the story of being displaced by the big moneyed interests of modernity is a rare story, and I don’t thing it is overly entangled in race. I think it’s a story that speaks to many of us. I also think the question of how to live in a world of large powers that displace us and to a great extend surround us invites the attention of a great many people, including young people.
This suggests the direction of my explorations, at the moment.
Sometimes we could see only a few yards through the heavy timber. If a plane were down, we could walk within thirty yards of it without seeing it. Thirty yards was a tiny distance in the immensity of those mountains. Also, I could imagine vectors through the woods all around me that would allow a plane to reach the ground without being visible from the sky.
To add to the problem, nobody had any idea what direction the plane had been flying. Lila and Bev, preoccupied with their conversation, hadn’t noticed where it left their sight. To the east, the Mission Mountain Wilderness where we were stretched through miles of forest and rugged peaks. Farther south, past the Jocko and Big Knife Drainages, it flowed into the Rattlesnake, where the mountains were gentler but the forests no less thick. The forests of the Ninemile area to the south and west were more heavily logged with many clearcuts, but it was a huge region of rolling hills and patches of timber.
Larry and Bev had flown from Boise into the tiny airport in their private plane to visit Lila Fayler and her four children. When they landed at the airport, Larry agreed to take the three children up for a quick look at the mountain valley from the sky. Bev was his fiance. She got out of the plane to wait on the runway with Lila, his sister. Larry, with his two nieces and his nephew aboard, taxied into the quiet evening, climbed quickly into the air then circled toward the snowcovered peaks east of town.
Lila and Bev chatted on the airport runway, sitting on the hood of the car for a half hour. The plane didn’t return. The engine’s hood cooled. Time dragged on. After an hour they went into town to check on supper, which Lila had put in the oven before leaving for the airport. When they went back to the airport, light was nearly gone over the western hills but the plane hadn’t returned.
They admitted their fears. The drive back to town felt unreal. They called Alan Mikkelsen, a local pilot. He contacted the state aviation agency before rushing to the airport. He prepped his plane then flew into the night sky. Hour after hour all night long he circled over the mountains, looking for any sign.
The next morning, aircraft from the state were in the valley, flying grids over the rugged country, looking for broken trees, oil slicks in lakes. I spent that morning moving lilacs from an abandoned homestead on the southern rim of the valley, planting a two hundred foot long hedge along my drive.
The sun was mild, and I struggled to pay attention only to what I was doing, ignoring the world beyond my gardens as completely as I could. But now that world droned insistently overhead, as plane after plane flew over or cruised along the mountains. Like others, I went about my work, expecting the search planes to find the children soon, waiting for good news.
When nothing had been found by evening, I drove out to the airport, one hangar beside one airstrip, to see if I could help. Though the county search and rescue van was parked beside the runway as a command center, there was nothing to command. “We need a sighting,” the search coordinator said. “We don’t have any idea where to start.” The searchers tried to pick up a signal from the emergency locator transmitter, but since the pilot was just going up for a brief jaunt he may not have turned it on.
I wore shorts and a t-shirt. Lila said the kids had also been dressed lightly. Night came as I waited out at the airport talking to the search and rescue people and people from town who dropped by to see if there was any news. I began to shiver hard from the chilly breeze. Winter had not yet left the nearby peaks. If the kids were alive, and if they were at a higher elevation than the valley, this night, their second in the wild, was going to be long and cold.
When I went home, I sat in my warm living room, and talked a little with my own children, asking them for information about Angela, the ten-year-old, the only one of the three kids I didn’t know. They told me she was a bubbly, happy girl, full of physical affection. She liked to hug people. Sierra was a senior at the school where, until a few months before I’d been principal. She was a beautiful young woman. Everyone noticed her. Jesse was only six, the same age as my youngest boy, and he rode his bike to our house often.
I went outside and stood in the dark, feeling the chill. Somewhere, one plane was still flying, looking for a signal or a fire. If my kids were up those mountains, maybe hurt, maybe waiting, I wouldn’t hang around until I knew where to start looking. It might be rational to depend on the air search, but they’d looked all day and found nothing. It would take outrageous luck to stumble onto the plane on foot in the vastness of the wilderness that surrounded us. But if luck was all we had, then we had to try. When you need a miracle, I believe, you have to step forward and expect one.
I connected with Bill Ferril, a local doctor, and Gary Steele, a professional wilderness guide. They were going to search a quadrant on the map of Mount Harding that a psychic had suggested. I placed no faith in psychics, but since I didn’t have a plan of my own, it didn’t matter to me where I started.
Before dawn the next moring we loaded packs to stay overnight and left. The terrain was rugged and the brush was thick, without trails. We fought through cedar thickets, crawled through deadfall and tore through underbrush. I found an easy logging road and followed it for almost a mile until ten-year-old growth reduced it to a trail, winding through lupine, paintbrush, clematis, wild rose, and gooseberries—all in bloom. The blossoms had attracted thousands of butterflies, and they fluttered among the leaves like delicate confetti. Hundreds of neotropical birds had returned from their migration, and the forest’s winter silence had given way to singing.
I walked slowly, overwhelmed, trying to memorize and to make meaning of finding the aromatic blossoms, the spectacle of butterflies, the chorus of birds. I had not coming looking for this, and I felt ambushed, torn between exhilaration and dismay to have wandered into such beauty on such a grim mission.
Toward dark, we broke out of thick brush onto a rocky outcrop. We made camp, built a small fire and fixed supper. We’d spent the day spread out, trying to see as much ground as possible, so we hadn’t talked much. Though I knew Bill well, I hadn’t met Gary before.
He’d guided groups through the Missions, though most of his business was in Arizona during the winter. “Not many people want hikes this strenuous,” he said, laughing.
He’d built a house up the Jocko Canyon, away from electricity and running water. He’d done all the work with hand tools. During the off season, when he wasn’t hiking and kayaking, he did contract sheetrock work. “I like the world the way it is,” he said.
He had met Edward Abbey, and though he wasn’t an avid reader, he had read all his books. He told personal stories about him, what had gone on among his friends in the desert during the days he was dying. The literary talk was an unexpected treat for me.
He had heard a little about me, and he asked questions about what had gone on at the school. “People told me that after they went to that board meeting they were sick. It made them want to move away,” he said.
Bill laughed. “The guy I rent my office from told me that the real problem was that the principal was trying to make this the best school in America. He said we couldn’t have something like that.” Bill was from out of state, and he enjoyed local eccentricities.
I didn’t want to talk about it, since it was a story and not one that everyone could hear. Throughout the conflict at the school, I had avoided saying much about the superintendent to anyone except the school board trustees. I provided formal documentation for my allegations. If he and I began fighting publicly, the school and community would be completely divided.
It was clear that he intended to fire me, using false allegations as the basis. If the board didn’t fire him, I was finished. It was the board’s decision.
During the weeks the story was unfolding, my job became more and more stressful. Every disagreement and every decision could become ammunition against me. A student swore at a teacher and she kicked him out of class. The kid swore at me and said that I was picking on him because I was a racist. The superintendent pounced on it, taking the student’s side. Such things were happening daily.
In the evenings, I took longer and longer walks, many miles, far into the mountains, into the night. When I was high above the valley in the wintry woods things seemed to fall into place. The town was a shabby little clutter in a huge and beautiful world, and the earth was a tiny planet in a vast cosmos.
I moved through chill wind, the near sounds of owls, coyotes yipping on the ridge above me. I climbed a path through dark to watch the moon rise over Goat Rock. If a person could truly see the big picture, I was sure, he would see that all the news was good. I thought hard about what I really wanted out of the situation. I thought about where I had started and what it had come to. I’d come home from Vietnam an angry young man, unstable and full of questions. I was drawn to classrooms because they are one of the few places that people gather to take life seriously, to ask questions in earnest. I was drawn toward poetry because it helped me live my life. Wallace Steven had taught me that it was the nobility expressed in poems that helped. He said that the poet’s nobility was a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination, pressing back against reality. The sound of it, he said, helps us live our lives.
Unable to make out what lay ahead, I returned to such beginnings.
After a dinner of macaroni, I left Bill and Gary to sit on the rocks beside the small fire, listening to the forest and the incessant drone of aircraft. A National Guard chopper flew directly over us. They were in a different world, in voice contact with the search command post and with state headquarters. I tried to talk to them, but our radio batteries had gone dead. I didn’t think the crew saw me, sitting in a more or less open spot beside a small fire. Their powerful technology kept them too far away. Our primitive hiking and looking was too slow, and the world was too big. The children were lost between two approaches that were not working.
We got up early the next morning, mixed cereal with yogurt for breakfast, tore down camp, and pulled on our packs. We hiked steadily all day. We went places and reached heights we would never have gone just for fun. On that day and the days that followed I became good friends with Gary. We were facing a tragic event, but we kept encountering earth’s many goodnesses.
When we got back to town, tired and footsore, scratched and cut from fighting underbrush, we learned that two dozen possible sightings were being investigated. Aircraft were coming from around the state, and both the Forest Service and the National Guard had loaned helicopters. Eleven fixed wing aircraft and three helicopters flew grids over the area, looking for broken tree tops or other clues. The constant roar of engines overhead droned through the day, gnawing like anxiety.
Psychics who had heard the news reports on television phoned in with suggestions. One flew to town, and friends of the family picked her up and drove her around the foothills as she tried to sense the children’s whereabouts. None of the leads they gave panned out.
The county sheriff said that the search was in the hands of the state aviators until there was a sighting. He said he couldn’t authorize a ground search until there was a place to search. People grumbled about this, and began organizing themselves. The next day, 120 people were in the mountains, hiking without much of a plan, following whims and intuition.
When again the day ended without success, people realized they needed to be more systematic. They gathered huge contour maps, tables and bulletin boards. Others lashed tarps together to form an ad hoc command center. They gathered reports and organized plans. People began marking off areas that had been searched, and others began checking to see what areas were likely. An organization was forming, spontaneously.
A woman who had led a petition drive a few months before, spending hour after hour taking a message of hate door to door through town, now set up a food pantry in the airport hangar. She gave hours to the effort. She cooked casseroles and got contributions. Soon, a field commissary was in full operation. Chile, stew, roast beef, hundreds of sandwiches, cookies, soft drinks were brought in and put on the tables. Searchers going out dropped in and put fruit and sandwiches in their packs. Searchers coming back hung around and ate dinner off paper plates.
The following day, nearly five hundred people were out searching. People called their jobs to say they couldn’t come in, and spent days climbing the rugged mountains.
Leaders arose. People who knew the area began assigning crews to search specific areas, having them check out before they left and report in when they returned. Local horsemen searched areas that horses could reach, and a bicycle club from Missoula arranged rode miles of logging roads. Volunteers directed traffic and established a huge parking lot in the hayfield beside the runway. Delivery trucks stopped on their routes to grocery stores and restaurants and to leave cases of fruit and soda at the hangar commissary. The search gained momentum and organized and reorganized itself quickly as people saw what they could do and did it.
People mentioned repeatedly that in some way this was connected to the mob that the superintendent had brought down upon the school. He had acted quickly. He identified enemies of the current board and offered them a chance to settle old scores. He found former board members whose dreams for the school had failed, and appealed to their resentment at being left out, offered them a way back to power. He found people who were hungry to be taken seriously, and praised them. Those who weren’t motivated by bribes or flattery were simply threatened. There was nothing unusual about his strategy. What was unusual was that he pursued it so wholeheartedly, so shamelessly.
Since people on his side felt their own importance threatened by those who attacked him, and those he attacked felt endangered by his support, the town was quickly polarized. People not involved in what was happening were astonished and perplexed by how suddenly and how passionately various people in town were mobilized to hatred for various other people. The two groups were not seeing the same thing, and they were furious at each other.
An old man who’d lived in town all his life came to me, asking what was happening. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said. He mentioned one of the superintendent’s strongest supporters. “That man has never stood up for anybody in his life,” he said. “I’m the only friend he’s ever had. But he kicked me out of his house because I don’t think the superintendent is doing the right things. What’s happening?”
The board chairman went to the superintendent privately and told him he didn’t like it. The superintendent said he was sad for any misunderstandings and promised to fix things. But the chairman had been in office long enough to have enemies, so the superintendent went to them and cultivated their friendship. Soon, he was campaigning underground against his board.
One of the chairman’s old foes, a businessman who had recently been on the school board, bought radio ads and called his own town meeting. Hundreds of people showed up to find out what the hubbub was about. Nobody knew. The businessman accused the chairman of having an agenda. He didn’t say it was a bad agenda, just that he had one. A newcomer to town tried to speak reasonably about the fact that nobody seemed to have any real information. The businessman yelled at him to shut up. The real message was simple: something was going on!
The search was bringing up powerful feelings, like those that at the mass meetings at the school. Everywhere I went, people tried to make connections between what was happening now and what had happened at the school just a few months before. They were heartened that the community could pull itself together to do good things as well as bad things.
“Isn’t this amazing?” a friend commented, gesturing at the crowd buzzing around the airport.
“It’s amazing, yes.” I was still distrustful of the town. But I also knew that if we so often find that what seemed right was, under the respectable clothes, rotten and cankered, it’s tempting to decide that nothing is good. This is the worst deception of all. When we give up on goodness, we are only a small step from hating it when it comes, because when it comes it will restore us to our guilt.
There had been no reports about the kids. It was eerie. They had simply vanished, without a trace.
People couldn’t fight back the realization that it was taking too long. There was hope. It was possible that the kids were out there somewhere still alive, unable to get out. But the odds were getting worse hour by hour.
Each evening when it was too dark to search, folk gathered at Lila’s hotel. The inside was nearly finished. Her art work was everywhere, large paintings of women with children and of buffalo. Her favorite medium was sculpture, and clay figures graced every corner and shelf. Folks brought food, and dozens of people wandered through, talking to each other, telling stories about their day, working out their plans for the next day.
Some folks brought guitars and flutes, and we sang and waited. Overhead the monotonous drone of aircraft went on. People knew that they were experiencing something profound and this was part of the sense of tragedy. One evening I sat on the floor talking to Lila, who was lying on pillows. She was exhausted, physically and emotionally. She hadn’t slept well since the search began, and she was torn continually between hope and grief, since the outcome of the story wasn’t unknown.
She was a beautiful woman, and she held herself through the tragedy with astonishing strength and dignity. People were drawn to her, partly because of her beauty and her gift for intimacy, but partly, I think, because they wanted to touch something real. Whatever was going on, it felt much more real than usual life. Folks crave contact with reality. Always, someone was with her and others were waiting to talk to her. At one point, she reached over and gave me a hug. “Let’s stay together when this is over,” she whispered.
One night I talked with two businessmen outside the hotel. We were all fatigued by the long days of climbing and the short nights of sleep. Most people had been ignoring the daily business of life, neglecting all the routines that ordinarily occupy us. One of the men commented on all the people that were still there, though it was late. “This is incredible,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep this spirit, to keep alive whatever it is that’s happening.”
Over and over folks called what was happening a miracle. People who had lived in the same valley all their lives but hadn’t got to know one another found themselves on search parties together, climbing and struggling through the hard terrain, helping one another, getting to know one another. People who had lived at the foot of the mountains all their lives without hiking into them found themselves spending hour after hour climbing through flowered meadows, reaching vistas from which they could see for miles, finding themselves stunned by the raw beauty they had been too busy to notice. Getting out into nature has a curative effect on most people. People were coming out of their isolating pursuit of wealth, of security, of importance into community, into nature, and in spite of the circumstances they found themselves being made glad.
I received a phone call late at night after I’d got back from hiking all day. A different search party coming out of the mountains at dusk had thought they saw a plane door floating in a lake. Someone knew that I had a canoe and I was asked if I could check the lake in the morning. Before daylight, I had my canoe in the lake, and I spent two hours paddling its perimeter. I wondered why I hadn’t got up before dawn and paddled other lakes. It was lovely and peaceful, watching the sun come up while I was out on the water, the mountains and forests all around. I found debris but none of it was from an airplane.
Over and over, people related what was happening to the vicious passions that had erupted on the fight over the school. Only a few months before, people had put a similar energy into hatred and fighting. They had gathered in cliques on the street outside board meetings, plotting strategies and imagining conspiracies, and then they had retreated into their hatreds and their resentments. The search felt like being let out of prison.
By the time of the board meeting to evaluate the superintendent and to decide whether to hire him for another year, the entire town was in an uproar. So many people showed up that the meeting had to be moved to the gymnasium. Three of the five board members were incensed at him. They could see what he was doing and they were furious.
“He’s attacking the school board!” one of them told me incredulously. They had documented evidence that, among other things, he had ignored board directives and violated board policies. He wasn’t any longer working for them.
The meeting had the atmosphere of a football game or a rowdy church revival meeting. The superintendent’s supporters were out in force and having a good time. Every time the superintendent spoke, no matter how silly or innocuous his comments, the room cheered. Every time one of the board members asked him a hard question, the crowd booed. The crowd quickly hooted down attempts by the chairman to run the meeting, and they wildly cheered the superintendent’s threats against me and the chairman. The lay board faced a gym full of true believers.
The board members easily read the passions of the crowd, and two of them began playing for popularity. Fans of the superintendent stood up and gave testimonials of support. The state senator, who was running for re-election, stood up and gave a speech in favor of democracy. The crowd became more and more hostile, feeling their power.
When I became convinced that I no longer had any formal role in the town’s life, I stood up to leave. I’d been sitting at the bottom of the bleachers in the center of the gym where I could answer questions from the board as needed. As I stood up, a woman came down the bleachers behind me and began beating on me with her fists. I turned to see what was happening, and looked into her face. It was twisted with hatred, and she was yelling something at me that I couldn’t hear over the roar of the crowd. She was too weak to hurt me, but she wanted to. We’d never met.
It was no ending I had imagined for my teaching career.
Most of the people in the gym were strangers. I hadn’t seen them at the school or at school activities. Neither I nor the board members who told me they supported me had tried to lobby people to get to the meeting. Those who had the authority—nobody else could do it—needed to examine the evidence and act on what they honestly found. Only five people would get to vote. I still believe it needs to be that way.
The superintendent spoke in a grand manner, sure now of his support. He was here to save the children. Evil people were trying to stop him. Whenever the chairman tried to address specific actions by the superintendent, the crowd booed him down. He was unable to get his evidence in front of the crowd, who clearly hadn’t come to listen anyway. The question people kept asking was, “What’s your problem with the superintendent?” They left without hearing an answer. They were a righteous mob, out to save the town. It can give pleasure, destroying enemies. The desire to destroy evil is evil’s favored tool.
The board lost its nerve. They voted unanimously to rehire the superintendent. After the meeting one of them told me, “If we’d done anything else, we wouldn’t have gotten out of there alive.”
I thanked each of the five board members for their public service, recognizing that they were in a hard place. I didn’t bother saying that I’d watched, that night in that gym in a little town, almost nowhere, the law vanish, replaced by the will of the people, aimed and focused by a man who, in Auden’s phrase, “knew human folly like the back of his hand.”
It was my turn to make a decision. Every strategy I could think of involved imitating the people whose methods I thought were wrong. I could launch a political campaign against my boss, persuading as many supporters as possible that he was evil. I could join his little war. Or he would fire me.
I thought about the times I’d already lashed out at people who threatened me, passing on a story that I wasn’t sure was true, making accusations that were partly based on suppositions. Driven by fear of defeat or humiliation it becomes easy to spread a little hatred of your enemies. In fact, nobody in town was doing anything that, to some degree, I hadn’t done before. I didn’t want to do it any more.
On the sixth day of the search I left early one morning to search the Mike’s Creek drainage that extended up Sonielem Ridge. Since looking mattered more than covering ground, the hike wasn’t hard though the way was steep. I moved upward through groves and clearings, through pine and fir. Occasionally, I met other hikers and had short conversations. These woods had more people in them than ever in history, but they were still peaceful. The meetings were welcome, not at all intrusions.
I kept going until I reached timberline, thousands of feet above the valley. In the aspen draws below me, I could see search parties fanning out, moving through thickets, stopping for sandwiches beside the alpine creeks. I stayed for a long time, no longer looking, really. When forests reach climax, fire or disease sets the biological clock back. Every five hundred years the giant cedar groves burn, as though the world is designed to remain in a state short of fulfillment, a place of striving toward. But whenever catastrophe strikes, leaving the earth scorched and barren, pioneering plants spring up from the ashes or sand, and slowly at first and then suddenly the barrenness turns green, as though the world is designed to thwart any final failure. Hence the need for hope and also its grounds.
That afternoon, I met Valerie and we loaded our van with kids and drove to a ridge above Twin Lakes, where we assigned each person a swath, moving up the hill in a sweep. Near the end of it, Valerie and I fell in together, walking through the lupines and paint brush. The beautiful woods around us were noisy with the exuberant efforts of our children, who were safe.
After a week, the official air search was called off. In the words of the officials, the resources needed to move on. Aircraft and the crews on loan needed to be returned. Searchers had stopped looking for signal fires and had begun looking for gatherings of bear, ravens, and other scavengers. There was no longer any rational hope that the children were alive, and there was nowhere else to look. The entire area had been flown over repeatedly. It was sensible to give up. The desire to save the children crashed into the raw immensity of the wilderness.
A few nights later a weary band of searchers, heartbroken and out of resources, out of energy, out of time, out of money, gathered hours after sunset to pray and to tell stories: those of us who knew the children told the others stories about our dealings with them. We talked about Sierra’s friendliness and charm, her love of nature, her acceptance of others. We talked about Angela’s enthusiasm, her giggling love of being alive, being with folks. We talked of Jesse’s wide network of friends, and his passion for his bicycle, which let him keep in touch with all the important folk he knew.
The psychics were gone, with their histrionic proclamations. The news people were gone, with their flat-footed questions. Most of the search planes were gone, with their aching roar. But we were still here, and we did not know what to do. So we planned to go on searching and without pride or pretense, together, we prayed.
The next day, the tenth day of the search, Ken Scott spotted the plane from a helicopter. Larry had gone up a broad canyon and far into it found it rising too quickly for the small plane, heavily loaded, to climb out. By the time he tried to turn the canyon walls were too close. His plane crashed into a cliff then fell upside down on a glacier. The craft’s beige underside was nearly invisible on the vast expanse of rugged ice.
All the passengers had died on impact.
We could not help them.
In the world’s terrible way, though, they had helped us, those of us who were looking for help.
That search ended but many of us lived on in this age of emergencies, an age full of commotion. Faith in old orders and old institutions is being eroded by people of words, and after the people of words come people of action to forge the discontent into something new. Our survival requires us to remember that if there are deceptions wrapped in righteous images to gain power, it is because at some level the deceivers know that goodness is the only game in the universe. Bad things are always parodies of good things.
For the space of ten days, folk in the valley moved through a holy place. The work they attempted came to failure, but in the working they glimpsed something else they had lost. In trying to find the lost children—and there are still many out there—a few hundred souls united for a moment in time against their only real enemy, human suffering, and in momentary glimpses and brilliant fragments, they found themselves.
Following the debate about Charles Murray’s Coming Apart reminds me of how little actual argument takes place between the left and those who disagree with it. Murray argues that America has been sorting itself according to intelligence since the meritocracy, purposely advocated by the WASPs of an older patrimonial establishment, made SAT scores more important than family connections as a criterion for admission to elite colleges. The irony from Murray’s point of view is that intelligence is largely heritable, and thus the new elites are establishing a patrimonial society buttressed by merit. They are the elite because they are smarter, Murray says.
He doesn’t argue that this is how it should be–only how it is. Although the left also sees a stratified society, it’s important to their egalitarian longings to believe that intelligence is evenly distributed through society, so that the stratification that we see must be caused by some form of social injustice. If poor people had schools and teachers of the same quality as the elites, their children would perform as well, they say.
People in the past justified privilege by claiming merit, and for radical egalitarians any assertion of superior merit is understood as a power stratagem. Most of the push back at Murray has been snide and accusatory, pointing out that his views contradict liberal axioms but without bothering to show that his views are inaccurate. It seems mighty important to many people of the left to believe that social problems are caused by bad people–injustice, oppression and exploitation cause inequality, and any attempt to go beyond these explanations is suspect. In other words, attitude and name calling substitute for finding any actual facts. Believing in witches seems the easiest way for some people to feel righteous.
Murray describes a fictional “Belmont” as typical of the communities where the top 20 percent live. The divorce rate is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high, and out-of-wedlock births are all but unheard of. He contrasts such places with “Fishtown,” where the bottom 30 percent live. The character of Fishtown follows from the collapse of what Mr. Murray calls America’s four “founding virtues” — marriage, industriousness, community and faith.
These virtues didn’t fade away from the culture of the American poor merely because of impersonal economic or cultural forces. They were intentionally debunked and undermined due to ruling class hostility to morality, which was viewed as a form of religious oppression. Heather MacDonald tells the story with ample evidence of how the ruling class for decades sought to help the poor by re-educating them with ideas counter to Murray’s founding virtues.
Murray now argues that to really help the poor, cognitive elites should again champion those founding virtues that were the foundation of America’s progress toward prosperity and happiness for all.
The usual boring and repetitive “debates” have followed. I believe that the founding virtues Murray extols are real virtues, and that attempting to live by them does encourage happiness and prosperity–far more than quixotic quests to eliminate variances in ability or circumstance.
Like most myths that have staying power, this one has some truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.
But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.” Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.”
He is correct that this story doesn’t motivate most high school students. After all, competition only motivates those who think they might win. How hard would you practice your basketball skills if someone told you next week you would play Kevin Durant one-on-one and the winner would receive a thousand dollars? You’d have to be a far better player than I am to break a sweat over your chances with that.
By the time they get to high school, students who are below average at schoolish skills know who they are. They know someone else will always have the answer more quickly or in a form the teacher likes better. A cliché among experienced teachers is that threatening such kids with bad grades is like beating a dead horse.
A first-year teacher told me a few weeks ago that she was frustrated with some students in her class who simply refuse to read or write anything. One young man was daydreaming through a test, not bothering to write answers on his paper. “This test is going to have a big impact on your grade,” she told him helpfully. “I know,” he said more in defeat than rebellion. “I never pass English.”
The life-is-a-market-economy story also fails to motivate other kids: those whose families are well off and who expect things to come naturally, those whose parents have never organized their lives around jobs and who have only a vague sense of what that means, and those who see that this story simply has poor answers to the questions that actually drive them-questions about who will love them, how they will matter, and where joy might lie.
I should make it clear that I’m not criticizing capitalism as an economic system. Poor people do better under capitalism than under other socialism, communism and various other economic forms we have tried. Capitalism has increased our wealth, leading to better food, better health and more educational opportunities. I have no desire to see people lose the freedom to start enterprises, to buy and sell or to own property, and I see economic equality arrived at by any means other than the freely given gifts of the wealthy as a mischievous chimera.
What I am criticizing is the belief that profitability provides an adequate guide to how we conduct our lives. Most of us have passed up opportunities to make money that would have required us to do things we thought were wrong. Most of us hold some things too dear to sell-our relationships to loved ones, our honest opinion, our vote. Capitalism does not require that everything be for sale, and it does not require us to allow the love of profit to overcome other values.
As we begin to lose such restraints, the life-is-a-market-economy story encourages people to suppress and sometimes extinguish their concern for what happens to others. The unconstrained pursuit of profit unleashes the demons of history. If the political disquiets that plague the world today are traced back in history, we inevitably find someone placing the acquisition of wealth above the welfare of their neighbors.
To pick one example from thousands, a hundred and fifty years ago, British government policy removed from Ireland millions of dollars worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs and poultry-enough to feed twice the Irish population-while nearly a half million Irish citizens were dying of starvation or famine-related disease. A family with a barrel of grain could not eat it because it was marked for the rent. Tenant farmers were evicted and their thatched huts pulled down as they watched, with no means of survival, so that the absentee owners could use the land to grow food for Englishmen at a profit.
In Skibbereen, monstrous graves called “the pits” were dug in the churchyard of Abbeystrowry, and the dead were dropped in without funeral or ceremony. In more remote areas, bodies ravaged by starving dogs and rats were dragged into ditches and covered with rocks and brambles. People were found dead beside the road with pieces of grass and leaves in their mouths. A traveler in Kenmore, County Kerry, one day met a dog traveling with a child’s head in its mouth.
As this went on British lawmakers continued to argue against any policy that would interfere with the rights of those in power to make a profit, and those in power continued to make money. Irish starved in a bountiful country while land went to weeds because they had no money to rent it. The Irish were victims not of the potato blight so much as of their lords’ love of profit. The needs of profit seem so absolute to believers that to ignore them is to ensure the destruction of society.
What on earth might have happened if poor people were allowed to farm land they did not own and had no legal right to?
People have always sensed that the real powers of the earth are, like gravity, invisible. We see their effects but we do not see them. The earth has never known a people who did not believe in the invisible powers, who did tell stories that promised insight into how to manipulate, appease, or extort power from them. Small societies tend to remember they are never far from starvation, so fear leads readily to attempts to control the world through rituals-ensuring good crops by, for example, slicing the jugulars of young girls.
All societies are religious, worshiping what they understand of power. Stockbrokers are as enamored of invisible forces as any other pagan tribe. In binges of “downsizing”–firing thousands of workers-corporate spokesmen utter the words of their faith with the same cold-blooded certainty that must have accompanied the incantations of Aztec priests performing human sacrifices. What was being done was ordained and required by higher powers: “We need to remain competitive; if we are not competitive the gods of the economy will devour us. Therefore, to save ourselves we need to devour each other.”
People whose first motivation is to grasp the world’s power learn to bow to the dictates of global financial markets, the sanctity of unconstrained competition, and the glory of quarterly profits. Profit is sacred, and what it demands cannot be ignored.
Many people, and not just students, understand quite accurately that the market story is an attack upon them rather than a communal narrative they can join. Many people recognize it as the political ideology of activists whose agenda, if successful, will strip them of dignity and more. In many cities and villages and hamlets around the planet, winners who expect to make a killing-the common slang is revealing-by what’s happening around them are easy to find. But the others are more numerous, trying to stay out of the way, maybe hoping like the D student at the back of the room that they won’t be noticed.
Today millions live in poverty and in the wastelands left behind as an “invisible hand” rakes unimaginably vast treasures into the coffers of the more fortunate. Meanwhile, our children are taught a faith that is much the same as that held by the British during the potato famine. They too worshiped an economy built on certainty that the need for profit comes first. The misery of the underclass created no obligation on the part of traders, speculators and agents whose first duty was to increase their wealth.
Most societies have taught their young to resist the profit-as-religion story, teaching that greed and unbalanced self-interest are bad. Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, resorted to using iron rather than gold and silver for money to put an impediment in the path of those seeking gain. Accumulating vast stores of iron made one a laughingstock in other cities, and transporting enough of the money to make much difference was so difficult that even thieves tended not to bother. Lycurgus did this so that people wouldn’t be distracted by their financial prospects from the pursuit of virtue-as he understood virtue, of course.
If we conduct an education that pushes back against the notion that the main reason for learning is to make money, we needn’t worry that people will suddenly become careless about prosperity. Our concern with money is nothing so flimsy as that. Education has always been concerned with the inculcation of virtues precisely because the vices are so powerfully ingrained in our nature. We do not teach chastity out of hope that people will no longer procreate-there’s scant danger of that-and we do not teach thrift out of hope that people will become misers. Rather, we seek to balance strong natural tendencies with prudent forethought.
The economy is real and those who completely turn their backs on it are punished, as every unmarketable artist learns. Money originated in temples, one of the power strategies of the priestly class. People have always granted it sacred powers. “Like spellbound savages in the presence of the holy,” William H. Desmonde tells us, we endure rituals of high finance, watching “in wonder the solemn proceedings, feeling in a vague, somewhat fearful way that our lives and the happiness of our children are at the mercy of mysterious forces beyond our control.” The wealthy know that money is not primarily about buying things. It is primarily about power. With money we can bend the forces of the earth to serve us. Disease, social turbulence and disaster are held at bay for those with financial might, and those without it are vulnerable and naked.
When we seem to say that winning the money competition is the main project in life, a teenager who knows that within school he will never finish ahead can make only dim sense of his prospects. One intelligent response is to withdraw, disengage, find other stories.
At school, our emphasis on grades and test scores-the coin of the educational realm we have created-leads us to neglect other motivators, some of which have extraordinary power. The desire to join is far stronger in most people than is the desire to win, and teachers doing legacy projects with students have shown that cooperative approaches supported by community recognition for high quality work can energize “at risk” students as well as “honor students.” We live most fully in our attachments to others, and service is the way we express those attachments.
If we were wise, our young people would hear from us often that good food, good housing, comfortable clothing, well-made tools, quality productions of the intellect, moments of ease brought about by work well-done can be sought in a spirit that does not invite selfishness.
And we would show them what we mean. To oppose selfishness is not to choose poverty but to choose relationship. The work we share is not simply making money, which often isolates us from one another. It is Civilization–in the singular–not as an existing state so much as an idea that can be progressively realized. America and what we have called the West is one civilization among perhaps ten in the modern world, and its history and ideals will play a significant role in any universal civilization we might yet construct, but for that to happen we need to believe that America is more than an economy.
We don’t need to believe that America has found the complete or the only truth to believe that its lessons have permanent worth. Serious discussion of such lessons should play a central role in education. For example, one of the ironies of the faith in markets is that markets don’t necessarily create the conditions markets need to thrive. Merchants as a group do best in systems of stable laws, but when the law is for sale in competitive markets, as is increasingly the case as the free market ideology overwhelms those who would moderate and balance it against other goods such as community stability, no one can be sure who will prevail on the morrow. The law becomes more volatile, like the markets, and though some businesses cash in, business in general suffers.
Also, though marketers praise competition, they generally do what they can to eliminate competitors. That’s what competition means. When markets rule, someone eventually wins and monopolies form that undermine the markets. The competitive spirit remains, but new competitors need harder tactics than good ideas and hard work to encroach upon the established merchant kings.
It would be sensible, I think, to deliberately teach and demonstrate to our young people that lasting prosperity is related to good character-the most basic meaning of which is that people hold some values too dear to offer them for sale. We might examine the way people have met hard times in the past, seeing how often the community rather than the individual has been the unit of survival, providing for members through shared action and generosity, doing as a group what no one could do alone. We might suggest that living in an altruistic community is the best security available in this life.
We could also talk about the economy as something that we make to serve purposes we have chosen. We could consider how a well-made economy might help us against our oldest and deadliest enemies: poverty, hunger, superstition, greed, ignorance, pride, selfishness and fear. All these have developed virulent strains that are barely slowed or deterred by the paltry education we now throw against them. As we have abandoned morality to the markets, a world has been forming within which fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie whole realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.
We might talk about the complex ecology of interacting forces that make the global economy the way it is, driving corporate leaders to believe that if they don’t do what is most profitable, their competitors will, and money will flow away from them leaving them unable to survive let alone to accomplish good works. This might lead us to wonder how much of the pressure they feel is not caused by the amorality of their competitors, but by millions of individuals buying goods and services and stocks without wanting to know more than where the best deal is to be found. What if people quit exporting from themselves the blame for greed and began wanting to know more about the ethical practices of the companies they traded with? What institutions to provide that information, which already exist, might grow and flourish?
That so many corporations today invest great sums of money to persuade people that they are good citizens and stewards suggests the power that lies with ordinary people. The great powers of the earth care deeply what you and I think. It has never mattered more what ordinary people think. Because of this, education has never before had the potential to make such dramatic changes to human life.
And the corollary is also true: the disasters that will follow mistakes have never been greater.
adapted from The Power of Community-Centered Education
…A few hundred years after Socrates, a different teacher gave his students a rule to follow. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” he said.
It seems simple enough. But of course, not everyone thought so.
There’s a guy in the crowd—maybe a student of Socrates’—we’re not told much about him except that he’s a lawyer. He wants things more precise. When should I love my neighbor? And exactly how much? There are dozens or hundreds of more or less unanswered questions we can ask about the teacher’s rule. Without more precision, how will I ever be certain where my neighbor ends and I begin?
This is the question the lawyer asks: “And who is my neighbor?”
He wants a definition. Once he gets it, he can wrangle with it forever.
But the teacher knows all about that sort of thing, and he doesn’t answer with a definition. That way of knowing, he knows, can slip into the sophisticated form of ignorance common among lawyers. We can glimpse it in the story told about a lawyer riding through the country with a friend. They pass a herd of Holsteins. “Look at the spotted cows,” the friend comments. The lawyer looks. “Yes, ” he says. “They appear to be. On this side, at least.”
…When can we say we know, and how many ways can appearances lead us to wrong conclusions? There are always those who see that dark region as an opportunity. It’s no accident that the rise of the lawyerly class criminalizes society. The fact that proof is difficult works to the advantage of criminals. We make laws to constrain bad behavior, but we can always quibble over what the words mean, turning the law away from public meanings that citizens can discuss into scholarly disputations in which any understanding is tenuous and ephemeral enough for aggressors against the public good to inch forward, dissolving whatever obstructs their own will. In such a society, criminals prosper and piety dissolves, along with respect for authority, commitment to morality, and the struggle to reach high ideals.
If we are to be the sort of teachers our children need, we need to cultivate a simplicity in our stories and in our conduct that can only be achieved by people whose primary interest is to be good. We need to surround our young people with communities that care about one another and about fundamental human truths. We need to protect them from being too influenced by the lessons that bureaucracies sometimes teach, as when they reward self-interest, attention to appearances, and avoidance of risk.
When it comes to what to believe, we often make two opposite errors. First, we believe things without evidence. From malicious gossip to false history to pseudoscience, the willingness to believe and act on ideas without evidence is the source of endless misery and countless tragic wrecks in personal and national history.
But the opposite problem is just as dangerous: refusing to believe anything not yet proved, in spite of good evidence. Proof is frequently not available even though the need to act remains. The demand for proof is often a method of blocking the very demands that our sense of goodness places upon us. Questioning things can prevent some mistakes, but it can also interfere with grasping what is plain and simple.
So the teacher who knows that loving our neighbors would be a good thing deflects the lawyer’s question and instead of getting lost in wrangling tells a story. “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves . . .” he begins.
When he finishes his story about a Samaritan and about several people who would not help him and about one who did, the teacher turns the question back to the lawyer. “Which of these,” he asks, “do you think was the man’s neighbor.”
“The one who helped,” the lawyer answers. He knows. If he did not want to know at least weakly he could have avoided the knowledge by the simplest act of will, but it is nonetheless encoded in the story in a way that any normal human can understand.
Eros as the ancients understood it initiates our every act. Both our heroic sacrifices as well as our selfish degradations are undertaken out of desire, and the wisdom and quality of such responses become the main determinants of both our joy and our misery.
Eros is not a physical object, known with the five senses; it is more like gravity–a presence that can be detected by the effects it causes. We can detect it in our consciousness as a movement in the soul, some attraction in the mortal to something beyond. Though Socrates’ teaching dealt mainly with reason, at key moments he augmented reason with consultations with his daimon–his channel of communication with the divine.
To take sensory impressions as the most important news about reality is like being trapped in a cave. Aristotle called the faculty we use to detect such invisible realities as gravity or eros the “intellect.” It was the intellect that, Socrates taught, the philosopher must cultivate to escape the cave of sensory impressions, where people relied on shadows to orient themselves not to reality but to their perception of objects. Beyond the cave we can learn to perceive with the intellect the invisible world. It is comprised of increasingly large and important ideas. Socrates told Glaucon, his young follower, that “the idea of the good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort.”
Odysseus may linger in his own cave, but he does not forget transcendent reality. He remembers from his youth the vision that stirs his eros. Neither the spiritual wasteland nor the natural wilderness is his true home. He was made for a place where the promise of his youth might be commpleted, where he might live in marriage to his beloved, enjoying good food and drink amid friends and kin, and where none could make him afraid. It was the vision of his youth that evoked his soul’s full assent, and now, lost and far from home, his spiritual longing will not be satisfied with lesser things. Near the end of his Allegory of the Cave, Plato quotes Homer on the ignoble life of those who live amid a false reality: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than to think as they do and live after their manner.” His desire defines him.
It impels him toward action. He’s eager at every moment to back it up with effort and courage, and it moves the cosmos, eliciting support from the slow and mysterious workings of justice. Odysseus chose the hero’s way, drawn forward by inextinguishable desire for home. He was, as Robert Frost put it, undergoing a “trial by existence.”
Frost held on to something vital in the intellectual heritage of the New England Puritans. For them, making sense of daily life was inseparable from regular reflection on the stories in the Old Testament. They saw the Bible as not merely or even mainly a collection of rules. Rather, it was a web of stories which reveals the transcendent patterns through which we can know things as they really are.
When Frost held that “a poem is metaphor or it is nothing,” he put understanding metaphor at the heart of literature. He also put literature at the heart of education. We could not understand what thinking was, he asserted, without understanding metaphor–all the ways we see one thing in terms of another. Such thinking was fundamental to the Puritans. They read the Bible typologically, seeing in the Old Testament a collection of types, or patterns, that prefigured the New Testament. Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage, through the Red Sea, and toward the Promised Land, which was a type for Christ leading sinners out of the bondage of sin, through the waters of baptism, toward the Kingdom of Heaven. This typological mode of thought was extended so that Christians could read all the Biblical stories as types for understanding their own lives and what was expected of them. The Puritans understood their own experience by finding in it a familiar pattern: they understood themselves as being led out of slavery in England, on a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and into the wilderness, on their way to a Promised Land. Mary Rowlandson found the meaning of her afflictions with the Wampanoags in the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and in the Psalms of the Babylonian Captivity. They recognized the divine order amid the multiplicity of variations they experienced in the lived Creation.
As Puritanism waned their long and highly sophisticated habit of seeing in events patterns of meaning that were portable, and that could be used to understand other events, lost some of its relationship to Creation as Divinely Authored and thus ordered with meanings, but powerfully metaphorical thought persisted in the symbolism of New England literature of such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville–the sense that images and events signified greater and more universal meanings.
They weren’t the only thinkers who understood that events in the physical universe can be understood by human consciousness when they are given form in stories or theories. When Robert Frost encountered Einstein’s theory, he was struck by how similar Einstein’s thought was to his own. Frost incorporated Einstein’s thinking into his conception ways the natural order is related to the mind of man. Harvard physicist Harvey Brooks said that the poet understood Einstein better than many of his colleagues in physics–specifically because they lacked the poet’s grasp of natural dualism led him to understand that metaphorical thinking was the way to make nature intelligible. Frost referred to Einstein as a philosopher among scientists who trusted intuited perceptions which transcended the rational-empirical assumptions passed on by Galileo and Newton. Einstein was able to leap from sight to insight, using intuition in the way that an artist uses imagination. He was a convinced theist whose “cosmic religious feeling” was his “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”
After spending much time with Madame Curie, Einstein explained her inability to rise above the mechanistic determinism that followed seeing reality as pure matter by noting “Madame Curie never heard the birds sing.” For Einstein, the pursuit of a simplified view of the world as simply matter which could be understood by science was a catastrophic illusion.
Both Einstein and Frost were dualists who believed that human knowledge of nature was indirect, conveyed through metaphors and symbols, rather than direct, conveyed through empirical experience brought into focus by logic. For Einstein, metaphors in science reveal “the unknown in terms of the known.” Frost saw that Einstein did for matter the same thing poetry did for spirit. Frost used Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory to deepen his thought about metaphor. He noted the metaphor involved in describing a thing as being an event. Frost quoted him, saying, “in the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved.” This delighted him. “ Isn’t that a good one!”
Einstein’s theory rejects the monism of matter alone that has become widespread among contemporary scientists. By arguing that moving bodies are perceived “relative to the standpoint of observers,” he made the observer essential to the perception of all reality.
Einstein held that there was no such thing as an objective physical universe as recorded through sensory experience; there was only a conceptual mental world perceived through the “free play” of the mind through conceptual ideas working upon the raw materials provided by the senses. (Robert Frost, The Poet as Philosopher, 166)
In other words, an age’s scientific theories provide the metaphors by which that age perceives itself in relation to the universe. This is analogous to some postmodern writers who eschew metaphor. If the universe lacks a transcendent realm and we do not live in Creation but merely in a material universe governed by chance, then typology is not a true way to grasp reality, for reality does not really have any meaning beyond those we construct for ourselves for our own purposes. When postmodernists see the use of symbols and metaphors as a way of being false to reality–imbuing it with meanings and qualities that it does not possess–they are asserting, in essence, that reality has no meaning. The loss of faith or interest in symbols and metaphors is one consequence of a loss of faith generally.
Walker Percy saw an intimate linkage between Christianity and the main metaphor of most novels–that of a human character acting in time. He suggested that it was Christianity, mainly, with its view of reality as a meaningful story within which each person could find a meaningful life that accounted for the reality of narrative and the idea of the novel. “There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos…. It is no accident, I think, that the novel is a creature of the Christian West and is virtually nonexistent in the Buddhist, Taoist and Brahmin East, to say nothing of Marxist countries.” Further, he says “Though most current novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the fat of that faith, so to speak, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events in the post-modern novel.”
Does the novel itself survive in the disenchanted world without metanarratives that postmodernists are urging on society? Joseph Epstein has observed that “literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.” He points out that “greatness of literature cannot be determined, solely by literary standards.” We also bring our “ethical, theological, and moral standards” to bear on such judgments. “Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards.” Unfortunately, as Eliot said decades ago, “‘there is no common agreement.'” Certainly, one can see the declining importance of literature in schools, along with a declining ability to say what literature is good for–except reading for reading’s sake. This loss of a trandscendant reality so far as education is concerned may be epitomized by the spread of John Dewey’s ideas.
Dewey was a dedicated monist. He hated talk about transcendence–metaphysics and religion. Science and sensory experience and a social process, he believed, would supercede the authority of the past, including religion but also to a great extent books. As Dewey’s pragmatism metastasized through schools–spreading the supposition that the cave from which Plato and others tried to liberate us, the cave of nontranscendant sensory experience and information, was all that we knew and all that we would ever know.
In Deweyan schools, we do not pass on the great insights of the past so much as we collaborate to resolve “felt difficulties”, with the collaboration very near an end in itself. It’s “social” and “democratic.” It “empowers” people by giving them a “voice.” “Constructed knowledge” is all the knowledge there is. A collaborating group is the purpose of the ideology. There is no truth that we can access ourselves, and there is no order to perceive in the transcendent.
We had little need for the noble intellect. What we needed were endless iterations of experiment and innovation. Ideas of good and evil–evil mainly–interfered with constant experimentation aimed at social redemption which could be ours within the cave. There is only now and our groups and our impulses. We can innovate and choose, and democracy empowered by science would replace noble old ideals concocted by philosophers and prophets.
Though being “student centered” was a useful slogan to shift the emphasis away from teaching the knowledge acquired by traditional academic disciplines, there’s precious little interest in individual students in Dewey. They are but abstractions in the social processes that were his real interest. Dewey sought a social process rather than individual virtue, imagining schools as a means of reconstructing society. The old ideals interfered with people accepting the ideology of social redemption. “Intelligence” and “growth”–never defined or explained clearly–should replace reason and tradition. “The point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.” Selves moved by impulse toward an ever receding horizon, unbothered by teachers, who had been replaced by guides and facilitators.
So like the denizens of Plato’s Cave we are governed by debating societies wherein members give each other degrees and awards to make it all seem real. We are slaves to laws promulgated by little emperors to make a name for themselves. What has happened in our progressive liberation from transcendental ideals has been a proliferation of moralistic substitutes. For cave dwellers, the coin of the realm is data.
What advice might Dewey give to Odysseus? The question brings to mind a comic picture. They would have little use for each other. Heros didn’t count for much in Dewey’s universe. For him, democracy was an end in itself, and he had nothing to say about the personal quest that, I think, should lie at the center of the educational journey of every student.
Great literature was long understood as the most important secular resource for awakening young people to who they are, where they are, how things work, and what is necessary for them to be and do. The old questions–Odysseus’s questions and Socrates’–are their questions: What is worth believing? What is worth approving? What is worth choosing?
What we mean by truth, beauty, and justice comprise the traditional answers to those questions, as well as we have for far been able thus far to form them. Such questions lay at the center of education for centuries, until the rise of modernity not long ago. Such questions will survive modernity, which will fail, as did Epicureanism and Hedonism and Stoicism because like them it can construct no satisfying solutions to the problem of despair.
What will also survive is the story that dominates the human past–that of the heroic quest. It’s true in ways we can’t exactly say, but we sense at its core that this is the way reality is structured. To be human is to be on a heroic quest. This is why Odysseus cannot linger on any enchanted isle. He needs to turn his life into a story, which means he needs desire and action even at the cost of death.
Joseph Campbell found versions of this story in human cultures throughout time. It isn’t necessary to understand this pattern, this type, in quite the way Campbell explicated it, as entangled in the Freudian and Jungian concepts that were familiar to him. The pattern doesn’t depend on Freud–it has emerged and been attractive to people throughout human history because of its essential human truth. We needn’t think the caves in which we find ourselves from time to time, even the enchanted ones, are our true home. As long as we are longing our journey is unfulfilled. We may need heroic endurance and courage–often in the form of remembering what we are after and learning better what that means–and we may find ourselves quite hapless without occasional cosmic intervention on our behalf.
What Homer saw was that it was possible to step forward boldly to string one’s own bow, relying on some cosmic justice that might impel the gods to take our side. The pragmatic revolution was premised on giving up that culture–turning from history and philosophy, turning from literature and books–in homage to the quite groundless faith that experience and science would get us, if not to the promised land, then at least to a reasonable adjustment to our plight.
That’s not what Odysseus wants, and it’s not what the best of our students want. His driving desire was to be free to live a fully human life–which meant getting home from the disorders of war and wilderness to a clearing in the light. It was to return to his marriage.
He knew the value of home because he could only have it only by choosing it, and the choice involved the loss of everlasting life with a forever young goddess. To make that choice he needed to desire marriage and home more than pleasure or ease. To speak as those who created this civilization often spoke, he needed to elevate his thoughts from the base to the sublime. The greatness of Homer is glimpsed in those moments when human characters experience, with assistance from the gods, an opening of the soul, a perception that the order in the world has its source in a transcendent order, the order of being.
These decisive realizations in Homer–that we are surrounded by an order that favors some sorts of actions and disfavors others–led to generations of discussion and questioning that formed a culture that, in time, formed the philosophers. Justice was an emotional response echoing the cosmos before it was a philosophical ideal. Existence has an order that extends beyond the senses–that transcends the cave and reaches to the divine.
To desire the higher things, we need to hear something of that. To claim his place and to fulfill the vision of his youth, Odysseus needed to liberate home from those who offended justice. Suitors had moved in, trying to claim his place–trying to steal his world. They abused the claims of hospitality, devouring what was not rightfully theirs. Odysseus purged his home of those who had chosen their doggie little lives–trying to win by deception and threat and flattery the world that Odysseus and Penelope had made.
Odysseus was sustained by memory and vision. Each day he left the cave of Calypso’s delights and stood at shore and gazing beyond the sea toward home. What was he thinking, lost on a somewhat enchanted isle with his back turned on delights that might titillate but could never satisfy him to the depths of his being in ways that he knew were right? Surrounded by a wilderness of wonders and terrors, he knows that the way forward, the direction of hope, is a return, a homecoming. The hero’s journey ends with a return home.
Students have an innate sense of justice, which is an innate sense of universal justice, of cosmic order. “That’s not fair!” is a thought expressed in every language in every culture. What they need, in much the way they need food for their bodies, are the old stories of the births and kings and the coming into the world of justice. What they need are the stories of the virtues we need to move toward our true home–courage, diligence, endurance, patience.
What they need are the compelling visions of who they are, where they, what is worth believing, what is worth admiring, and what is worth choosing. They need an education in desire. Even John Dewey understood that much: “The highest outcome of a sound education is intelligent desire.” It is desire that drives choice, and there a real sense in which every student at every moment exists on the verge of the transcendent moment–the moment of decision when one is “all in”–like a hero. Or not–like a captive.
Moments, though, are not moments until we see them.