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.

It only seems like a story about hollyhocks

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

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

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

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

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

Questions for close reading (graphic)

The main thing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) get right is the emphasis on close reading. ImageThe emphasis on reader response has led lots of students to think reading is a process of free association–they grab at any stray association that comes to mind and offer that as what the text “means.” But most texts do have meanings that we can ascertain through attention. Communication really is possible.

Practice at close reading is also essential to learning to write well. Close reading is a fundamental strategy of critical thinking.

Here’s a worksheet that may be useful for applying these questions to specific texts.

Adapted from The Art of Close Reading by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).

The ALERT processes: student research beyond copy and paste

My last book is built on the framework of the ALERT processes.
Image

Teachers should big and enduring questions during the initial phase of immersion in a topic. Later, students should be invited to reflect on new information and experiences in the light of those questions. In this way, local studies can be linked to the enduring issues around which good curricula are organized.

By upholding high standards for the writing that undergirds all final reports and presentations, student work is kept accountable to district, state and national standards.

Good writing projects are most often good research projects appropriate to a digital age that calls on students to add original research to the published record, rather than copying and pasting from previous research.

True stories in an age of fictions

“No society can be just or good that is built on falsehood.” Stanley Hauerwas

watership_down___the_great_patrol_by_fisi-d4oy7xfI spent some of the day outside reading Stanley Hauerwas. He deals with some of the same concepts as Alasdair MacIntyre–the connection between narrative and social ethics, for instance–but his style is simpler and less technical. I think high schoolers in an AP class could follow much of his thinking. His essay “A Story-Formed Community” lays out quite vividly some basic ideas about communities and politics that would be useful for young people to discuss, but the essay is organized as a reading of Watership Down, so some familiarity with that novel would help. I’ll watch the film version, which I’ve never seen. Maybe that would provide enough background, given that Hauerwas uses extensive re-telling of the story to make his points.

He uses the novel because “the best way to learn the significance of stories is by having our attention drawn to stories through a story.” The significance of stories, for a polity, is fundamental. Communities are founded on stories, and they sustain themselves as members tell their personal stories, finding how they fit within and extend the founding stories. Arguments and political discussions “are subordinate to the ability of a community to live and tell its stories.”

It’s a useful balance in an age awash in policy discussions and multi-step plans. The stories people tell and the stories they believe they are part of matter more than any number of contests between wonks. Who we are will shape what happens, and we are creatures formed and driven by stories.

A story is true to the extent that it can accommodate the pressures of actual events. Societies whose stories can no longer accommodate that pressure do not remain communities, though they may produce Potkemtin villages and other forms of seeming. Seeming is the first refuge of a scoundrel. Hauerwas contrasts the society of Russia under Stalin with communities formed and sustain by religion: “It is well-known that Stalin responded to Pius XII’s condemnation with the taunting question about how many divisions had the pope. Most assume that Stalin’s point is well taken, for without divisions the power of the church counts for nothing. Yet in spite of all appearances to the contrary, Stalin’s response masks the fundamental weakness of his position. A leadership that cannot stand the force of truth must always rely on armies.”

That’s quite true. Lying and deceiving are forms of weakness, and when leaders begin lying they also begin arranging stronger methods of control than persuasion. Audits, maybe. Inquisitions. “Peace is bult on truth,” said Hauerwas, “for order built on lies must resort ultimately to coercion.” I would be more optimistic about our future if Americans seemed more attentive, more outraged, at the steady stream of deceptions and misdirections flowing from the current administration.

Justice is based on truth, and freedom is based on justice. The only real defense good people usually have against bad people is the truth. Systems of justice are always systems of ascertaining the truth–of figuring out amid conflicting testimony what really happened, of unmasking liars and shedding light on deceptions. There’s no other way to work at getting the right things done. Creating fog and confusion is the stock in trade of criminals angling to get possession of other people’s property. They don’t care that if we can’t keep what we’ve made and acquired needed for the way of life we’ve chosen, if we can’t keep the place we’ve created for ourselve and our fellows, then we can’t stay free.

The president’s chronic deceptiveness is necessary because people would not tolerate his designs if they were clear–good and just people may still constitute a majority.

One thing to do, as we wait to see what happens, is to tell and discuss the stories that lie at the heart of the better world that we’ve seen, sometimes in true texts, sometimes in daily life. Ultimately, stories are more powerful than armies. Caesar and Napoleon had far less impact on the world than Buddha and Jesus. The best story wins.

Context: trying to tell the larger story

Hellgate Treaty of 1855

S.E. Paxson’s (1852–1919) rendition of 1855 negotiations between Isaac Stevens and chiefs of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes at Council Grove.

What was important about America was the experiment with rule of law linked to democratic processes. I’m ambivalent about using the past tense, but rule of law as a reality seems to me to be waning in America. It has powerful opponents, though they work not by attacking the phrase but by subverting how the words are understood.

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.

Toward a New Story for Schooling

Saul O. Sidore Distinguished Lecture
University of New Hampshire

My topic is “Toward a New Story for Schooling,” but I’m really telling an old story: we can’t separate education from community and we can’t understand communities without understanding them as a web of stories. To improve our schools, we need to pay attention to the stories our communities tell themselves about what they face, what is worth wanting, and where to go next. A new story can suddenly change us–as individuals, communities, or nations.

In 1849 Kit Carson set off in pursuit of a band of Apaches who had captured a white woman. The anecdote, related by Carson himself, sounds like the beginning of a movie. However, Carson had to ride his sweating horse not through the West of some scriptwriter’s imagination, but through a world more like the one we experience every day. A world where we lose the trail, move too slowly, lose our nerve, take the wrong turn, arrive too late or in the wrong place. By the time Carson caught up with the Indians, the woman was dead.

In the abandoned Apache camp he found something else though. A book about a largely fictional character named “Kit Carson” who was a great Indian-slaying hero. It was a shock to him. According to historian Richard White, “Carson’s reaction to finding the book . . . was to lament his failure to live up to his fictional reputation.” The actual Kit Carson was something less than god-like. He couldn’t tuck his pants into a pair of colorful boots, swoop into the scene amid a glittering whirl of rhinestones and leather fringe to perform six-gun magic against the doomed forces of evil. Compared to pulp fiction, real life seemed a bit dismal. And so “the fictional Carson became the standard for the real Carson.”

His life began trying to imitate the story. And who can blame him? We all have within us the heroic impulse. We want lives of meaning, of purpose, of significance and so do our students. If our schools don’t allow young people to feel themselves heroically engaged in something that matters, if we don’t organize them into stories that capture their imagination, filling them with visions of how they want to be, they will fall easy prey to other storytellers, which are all around us.

It has always been that way. There are stories and images loose in the world that capture us and drive our destiny. Such stories rival geography and economics as forces that shape the history both of individuals and nations.

The trouble in schools today can best be understood as a crisis in the narrative environment.

Full Text PDF: “A New Story for Schooling”

Robert E. Lee on honesty: a companion text to Machiavelli

When my rhetoric and composition class held a Socratic dialogue on an excerpt from Machiavelli’s The Prince [Machiavellei: The Morals of the Prince], a consensus formed quite quickly that one had to do what one had to do–that is, lie.

I injected a counter argument into the conversation, suggesting that it is possible to approach public life in the spirit of Socrates, using language only to discover and communicate truth–having goals that one is willing to advocate for explicitly and honesty so that one can also adopt truth telling as one’s method.

A stronger approach would have been to be sure that students had read counter arguments by other writers before the dialogue, so that the discussion could focus on understanding and analyzing various points of view, rather than agreeing or disagreeing with what they guess is the teacher’s opinion.

So I’ve been looking for a text that could serve as one of the companion texts for Machiavelli. A letter by Robert E. Lee to his oldest son might serve. Here he argues for being frank in every situation:

You must study to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend ask a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot. You will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as ‘the dark day,’—a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on. They shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan, You cannot do more; you should never do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.

“Human virtue should be equal to human calamity.” That’s rhetoric worth pondering.