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.

Badlands: life sans religion, sans philosophy

Dakota Badlands

Kit and Holly enact a fairy tale made entirely of cliches and self-approval. They are anti-heroes of the American type.

Terrence Malick’s Badlands works as a period piece for that post-Vietnam time of self-absorption and loss of moral clarity that also gave us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. But it’s not just a period piece—Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis are somewhat timeless in their possession by unfocused, impulsive desires that attach to people and events in the kaleidoscope moments of a journey from unclear beginning to unknown terminus, and they “think” about what is happening and what they are doing entirely by repeating slogans and catch phrases they’ve picked up from the cultural milieu around them. In other words, they are quite like many people you know.

Most of what they say has a self-forgiving quality; their parallel monologues form a series of incoherent verbal gestures that help them feel good about themselves. As they bounce from murder to murder, they continue believing they are “good” people, though they are not. They are very bad people. They are bundles of appetites, no better (or much different) than snakes swallowing live mice. People are endowed with a moral sense. They should develop it.

Simple people may be saved by a good heart, as with Forrest Gump. But desire is not wise or good, for most of us, without some education and discipline. More and more of us get our moral education from our folkways, and our folkways are becoming increasingly toxic for inarticulate people with inarticulate desires. Holly and Kit never have thoughts, properly speaking.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” said Holly. “Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment?” Her thinking never becomes more precise or more clear. “Kit never let on why he’d shot Cato. He said that just talking about it could bring us bad luck and that right now, we needed all the luck we could get.” That’s her “reflection” after one murder. About the next one, she observes: “He claimed that as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses. You had to take the consequences, though, and not whine about it later. He never seemed like a violent person before, except for once, when he said he’d like to rub out a couple of guys whose names he didn’t care to mention. It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know him at the same time.”

As for Kit, he segues from event to event, narrating his own story entirely in cliches and banalities. “Of course, uh, too bad about your dad. . .I can’t deny we’ve had fun though. . .it takes all kinds.” Nothing important can ever happen to him. He’s incapable of it.

Their moral sense has shrunk to effortless recitals of rationalizations—instead, they view life in aesthetic terms. Holly rejects the outlaw life because the wilderness is void of bright lights and pleasant food. Kit beams with a self-satisfied feeling of success when the officers escorting him to prison observe that he looks like James Dean.

The film endures because Malick is right about important things. He’s right about the woeful state of people whose minds are not enlivened by religion or enlightened by philosophy–in his stories, stupidity and evil are often kindred conditions. Malick’s films are frequently hideous, in precisely the way life among the folk is sometimes hideous.

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.

The ALERT processes: student research beyond copy and paste

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

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.

*The Lower Flathead River* is a beautiful and useful book

Flathead River, below Dixon

The Flathead River, below Dixon–shot on a return trip from Seattle. Home at last.

I quite like The Lower Flathead River and find it an easier resource to use than some others because it’s less necessary to complicate simple ideas about the past presented more as heritage than as history. The primary sources don’t always point in the same direction. They are more true to the past, in the sense that there were never simple answers to the complexities people faced. The past, like the present, is rich with opportunities and with dangers, with good people and with mischievous people, and it’s often hard to discern what one should think, or where one should head.

People approach the past with many different purposes, and most people will find their purposes supported by some parts of this book–and most will also find their purposes undermined in some ways. I think that’s a good thing. I would like lots of people whose lives intertwine in this place to read this book. I think most of them will find themselves among folk that they recognize.

The book is a bit too real to support any but the most determined ideological thinking. What I mean by “ideological thinking” is simply the act of replacing reality with a simplified theory of reality, which one holds to even when the facts don’t support it. The books to read, on that topic, are Gulag Archipelago and The Roots of American Order. I think ideological thinking is a major problem in contemporary education–since I think to a great extent schools have suffered a sort of ideological capture.

Changing geographies of possibility


Bison at the National Bison Range on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Sense of place as an aspect of mind–paying attention to old stories heightens our sense of place, emphasizing at once cultural continuity and cultural change. I’ve been reading the Challenge to Survive series of beautiful books produced by Salish Kootenai College Press about the Salish Tribes of the Flathead Reservation.

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.

Contextualizing Tribal Sovereignty

Flathead Nation police patch

A nation within a nation creates endless opportunities for conflict or for negotiation.

I think the materials presented in class about tribal sovereignty are good and useful–they present the tribal perspective, and they present a good starting place, particularly for students who are unfamiliar with the history and the arguments behind tribal sovereignty.

I would contextualize these materials in my class by focusing on what Decker called “collisions” between tribal sovereignty and other constitutional considerations. One major area that invites further thought has to do with the rights of nonmembers who find themselves under the jurisdiction of tribal governments due to tribal sovereignty. One context for tribal sovereignty is the Constitution itself.

The New York Times picked such a situation for an online discussion. Because the case they selected focuses on the treatment of black citizens by a Native American tribe, it has the advantage avoiding the racial stereotyping that such discussions tend to invite. My hope would be to balance a discussion of history with a discussion of principles, ignoring racial distinctions and discussing group A and group B–the situations in the abstract.

I will also locate or create a simple document spelling out what “rule of law” has meant to a few major thinkers historically–including Aristotle and Hayek but also a few others.

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.

Bad stories: my tribe is better than your tribe

salishOne story that is a powerful presence in today’s schools might be called “my tribe is better than your tribe.” Like the story of the market economy, the ethnic pride story is larger than public schools and larger than America. Around the world people cluster around visions of themselves as ethnic warriors: skinheads, I.R.A. soldiers, Serbian militiamen, Palestinian terrorists, Zionist militarists, Hutu or Tutsi warriors and on and on.

These stories are strengthened by the spread of an unconstrained global economy that dislocates and dissolves traditional communities. Frightened people seek shelter in all manner of religious, ethnic and racial identities. People who are making lots of money tend to develop a loyalty to the machinery of wealth, but most people are not making lots of money. Instead, they see that the new economy does not need them, and they know what happens to people who are not needed. They are susceptible to the story of tribal zealotry, which is just as simple as that of market zealotry.

Of course, the tendency to rally together with others like ourselves and to distrust outsiders doesn’t really need to be taught. It comes to us easily, and there are always historical evidences to bolster it. One day I was walking down the hall in the school where I was principal and two scuffling boys didn’t notice me until they bumped into me. I put my hand on one of the boy’s shoulders as I passed and said, “Calm down.” It was a nonevent of the sort that people who work with young people handle without much thought every day.

But this day one of the boys whirled around and glared at me. “You’re just picking on me because you’re a racist,” he said.

I knew the boy’s family, so I knew that his family included Indians, but like many of the families on the Flathead Reservation, including my own, his had intermarried extensively and few people would identify him as Indian based on his physical characteristics. He had sandy hair, green eyes, and fair skin. His family was not poor, and I doubted he had experienced much prejudice because of his race.

Clearly though he had been taught to see white authorities through the lense of racial distrust, if not outright hostility. I think he had also been taught that it’s fun to challenge authority with power words.

I related this story to a school administrator, an African American, from Milwaukee and he shook his head and grinned. “Whooee!” he said, “I’m glad I’m not a white man!”

He was making a joke, of course, the humor of which lay in the role reversal. Role reversals are so common in history that they are one of the basic patterns of the human condition. They are part of how we learn. A good education would help people see the world through the eyes of both kings and beggars, victors and victims, oppressors and the oppressed, and all these experiences exist in the stories of most families, somewhere in their history. It is often the case that we learn the harm we do by the harm we suffer. If we are wise, we can learn this vicariously by reading history and literature, experiencing what our fellows, of all races and nationalities, have experienced. Stories easily cross racial and national boundaries, affirming the essential kinship of all of humanity.

Cultural pluralists believe that the heritage of all peoples can be accessible to all other peoples. One needn’t be Nez Perce to claim Chief Joseph as a cultural ancestor, or Jewish to include Isaiah among one’s spiritual fathers. Cultural pluralists believe that various cultures can work together in some ways to build a larger culture, of which all are a part. Pluralists work toward a future in which many cultures find ways to balance the preservation of what is unique and cherished in each with finding common ground with others on public issues. Cultural pluralists recognize that American culture is a tapestry of many cultures, and they understand that we are free to seek insight, nobility, clarity, wisdom, wit and beauty wherever it may be found, among all religious and ethnic traditions. One might think that America’s wide-ranging success at building a pluralistic society would be a source of tremendous encouragement.

This sort of cultural pluralism is poorly served by ethnic pride that sees history only as a contest between fixed categories of people: Catholic and Protestant, black and white, Muslim and Christian. What are we to make of American history? Many of us want America’s failures to be the important story. They want stories of slavery, of religious persecution and of forceful exclusions of Native Americans to be the main truth about our history.

Of course, such stories are not new. They come close to being business-as-usual in world history. It seems to me that the important story of America is that through all these troubles Americans have built cities where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists go about their business without pogroms or identification badges or papers, though we need to remain forever vigilant. The hopeful story is that America abolished slavery, and that America extended full citizenship to Native Americans, and enforced at great cost treaty rights negotiated with their ancestors. Though cultural warriors like to focus on the failures of the government to honor treaties, that is far from the entire story. It would have been easy for the powerful to deconstruct the treaties, which were often poorly wrought agreements negotiated under tents in the wilderness between mid-level bureaucrats and small bands of powerless nomads. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld many treaty provisions. The only reason for doing so is a sense of honor and justice.

The impulse behind ethnic pride is to define one’s identity by one’s enemies. As Neil Postman points out, “To promote the understanding of diversity is, in fact, the opposite of promoting ethnic pride. Whereas ethnic pride wants one to turn inward, toward the talents and accomplishments of one’s own group, diversity wants one to turn outward, toward the talents and accomplishments of all groups.” Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism and Native Pride. The impulse to circle the wagons is the same.

One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. Extremists of the left and the right inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ nightmares. Their enemies are their reality.

Powerlessness and hardship and fear are not the exclusive possessions of any ethnic group. Poorly educated and financially strapped whites who are not powerful people, and there are many of them, are deeply threatened by the political success of groups organized around hostility to whites. In turn, people of color are threatened by skinheads and white militias. As either group advances, it frightens its opposition, leading them to gain recruits and to strengthen their commitments. This is one of the oldest patterns in human affairs, and the stories the different sides tell themselves guarantee the conflict between them will intensify. This plot has no ending except for one group to destroy the other.

We can learn to see a world teeming with varied cultural ways of taking advantage of nature’s offerings and of exploring possibilities for agriculture, government, cuisine, music, dance and worship. But when we focus on a narrow tale of raw power, we are easily intoxicated by self-righteousness and rage. We can believe that weak people are always oppressed by powerful people, which leaves us no choice between being oppressed or being the oppressor. We can study the many forms of oppression and begin to understand all narratives–indeed all discourse–as disguised power stratagems. We can think that everything is political. We can even believe that the collapse of existing power structures will empower the weak.

But this isn’t what happens. The collapse of governments empowers criminals. The plight of the weak gets even worse. Nonetheless, to militants rage is intoxicating, forgiveness is weak and forgetting is an act of disloyalty.

We can become quite emotionally attached to our anger, our most meaningful relationships with others premised on a shared sense of embattlement. We may say we want peace, and even believe it, without quite seeing how we have thought ourselves into a reality in which to lose our enemy or our hatred would be to lose the meaning of our lives along with membership in our community. People who meet for intense sessions to plot strategies against their enemies don’t doubt that their lives have meaning and purpose. To the ideologue, ordinary people are small-minded pawns who don’t see the grand scheme of things. In our desire for a better world, it’s easy to transform our resentment into a moral program, our self-hatred into nobility, our extremism into heroism, our quest for power into a zeal for utopian justice, and our emptiness into a new morality. True believers, Eric Hoffer called such victims of bad stories.

The best that can be hoped for is separatism, often described as “self-determination.”

The desire for separatism, however, is not sated by its victories. It isn’t a principle that leads to any sustainable state of affairs. Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld makes the point by focusing on Canada. “If Quebec leaves Canada, why should not the Cree leave Quebec? And why then should not anglophone villages leave Quebec or opt out of a self-determining Cree nation if it is such that they find themselves inhabiting? And if a few francophones reside in the predominantly Cree region of a predominantly French Quebec, what about their status?” The separatist desire leads to Balkanization and strife.

There are several reasons the story of ethnic pride doesn’t motivate students to do well in school.

The main one is that this story teaches that the route to feeling good about oneself is a matter of being part of the “good” group. No authority outside the group, which will likely include not only teachers but most of the voices in a good library, is granted much authority. Militants on the left and on the right are both hostile to school authorities who, they feel, are hostile to their essential identity. Both are indifferent or hostile to what outsiders (such as scientists and historians) have to say. When these attitudes become habit, teaching authority is likely to be felt as dictatorial, as an act of dominance. But without authority there is no teaching.

All this undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At the extremes of Afrocentrism, the claim is made that good and evil have biological roots, and that the more skin pigmentation a person has, the more goodness she has. Perhaps this illustrates a common historical pattern: oppressed people imitating their oppressors.

The ethnic pride story retreats from the historical difficulty we now face, abandoning the work of forming common ideals and principles from which we might yet build a world-wide civilization–a true family of all humanity.

Bad stories: high school for careerists


As gods go, money is one of the worst.

The main story of schooling is a simple tale. Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they will have failed.

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