Beyond good and evil: complying with the Montana Behavioral Initiative

surveillance camera at school

Monitoring and surveillance is becoming the dominant interest of today’s “evidence-based” school reformers.

Yesterday was spent listening to school reformers against the backdrop of breaking news about the murdered children in Newtown. This was enervating. School reformers do not, by and large, talk about any actual world. They are most comfortable at an abstract level of discourse, where all their dreams seem possible. They had me thinking about how Orwell’s depiction of society governed from the center via propaganda and surveillance was apt.

Montana schools have adopted Montana Behavioral Initiative as the basis of school culture and student discipline. It’s driven by low-level psychology–behaviorism–and it assumes “success” as the main goal driving the choices we make about how to act. We will have lots of little rules (stated “positively” of course) all linked to little rewards and little punishments (now called “consequences”).

The functionaries see their system as the world–they create propaganda, implement programs, collect data, refine their programs. They create a total reality in which the goals of their programs are not questioned, in which data measures the depth and breadth of their program’s penetration into the consciousness of the subjects (us). Interventions are designed to extend the effectiveness of what they are doing. It’s a little circular and self-referential system, which functions as a world. They are somewhat dull-witted when confronted with statements or events that do not fit their ideology.

Schools are “free” to identify their own “core values” around which to organize their “data-driven” systems (monitoring and surveillance). Of course, when such “values” are chosen through the usual consensual models (small groups contribute little tidbits on big sheets of paper which then get “reported out” to the white board at the front of the room to be lopped off to make a list compliant with expectations from on high), one can be sure that the values that survive will be accurate summaries of the conventional wisdom. So since teachers are low- to mid-level bureaucrats, we predictably end up with catalogs of the bureaucratic virtues.

Our new program will be built around the acronym POWER, with P for pride, O for ownership, W for work and R for respect. I can’t at the moment recall what E is for.  Being “positive” and “authentic” are “pluses.” I have not yet heard mention of double pluses, but they can’t be far away.  Such is the nature of our tribe.

If the room had been filled with Spartans, our list might have included ferocity, strength, and loyalty. If we had been in the Catacombs of Rome, faith, hope and charity might have made the list. A gathering of Confucian scholars in ancient China hoping to counter the mad influence of King Zhou would likely have listed benevolence, honesty, loyalty, integrity and propriety.

But we are a tribe of bureaucrats, so our virtues tend to be those which support success in bureaucracies. Aristotle was the great teacher who in Nicomachean Ethics  first helped us understand that every community is formed mainly by which virtues are taught and practiced. Not very long ago, it would have seemed possible to base an education program on Aristotle, with teacher talking about the way such virtues as honesty, courage, generosity and justice link individual happiness and community well-being.

A discussion among educators familiar with Aristotle–or the cultural heritage of western Civ in general–does not any longer seem possible, but it does still seem odd to have education captured by a tribe of little bureaucrats, who imagine they can control everyone with an ever-expanding system of surveillance linked to consistent rewards and punishments, aiming at “success,” as though we need more “successful” people. The focus of the talk was on how to get nearer to 100 percent–all students passing all classes, all students getting a diploma. What was not discussed was what grades or diplomas might mean–or what they should mean.

The very concept of freedom seems outside the thought world of professional educators. In place of freedom as the long-standing goal of liberal education, we have substituted “success” and “compliance.” I take it as the totalizing imagination of little functionaries who imagine their little system is the world, and that when their system is fully implemented, all will be well.

Our central planners have, to a great extent, reduced the economic possibilities in our communities. Not very long ago, a kid who did not love school and the kingdom of abstraction enshrined there could graduate from high school, get a job at one of the local saw mills, and make enough money to provide for a family–a house, two cars and a boat if he so desired.

The saw mills are gone, by design. Our central planners and reformers have for decades been urging us to believe that we only need a “knowledge” economy and that actual production and manufacturing can be left to poor nations. Now, they are “reforming” schools to serve their new economy, where everyone will be fluent enough in literacy and numeracy to collaborate on abstract tasks assigned from above. Schools are being perfected, in the sense of becoming nothing more than adjuncts to a centrally planned economy.

We are far enough into this process to see clearly that this will leave many people unemployable, but that’s not a problem, from the point of view of those who believe we were made for the system. The unemployed will be fully organized into the administrative state, living on the dole and thus submitting to constant surveillance as fully employed bureaucrats monitor their housing, their income, their diets, their health care. In that system, it makes perfect sense for central bureaucrats to monitor the blood glucose levels of citizens–probably more properly described as “subjects” or “patients.” In that system, it might soon seem normal that morning calisthenics mandated from the center and monitored through new technologies makes perfect sense. The potential for tutelary programs to more fully manage the lives of the poor gives a certain sort of heart a flutter.

At our staff meeting, we did not talk about good people and a good society and how the two relate. We have, as our cultural heritage, a vast and profound literature on those topics. But instead of reading some of it, we are referred to the OPI website, which has a lot of information on how to do “it”, but nothing at all on what is worth doing.

Einstein observed quite early in the twentieth century that “perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age.”  The ends–the big goals toward which we strive–are left to the central planners and functionaries. We are taught to collaborate and brainstorm about means. The message to teachers yesterday was “You will use behaviorist psychology and more complete monitoring to improve compliance of students with school rules in the classroom, in the halls, in the parking lot, and even in the restrooms. With that goal unquestioned, get in small groups to collaborate and brainstorm suggestions (that the facilitators will revise for compliance with central objectives into documents by which you will be held accountable.)”

Are we really content to teach kids that our main desire is for success, defined as a free cup of coffee for complying with the rules (positively stated, of course)?

I’m probably a little out of step, since my culture continues to teach that pride is not a virtue but a sin, and I think on days when kindergarten children are murdered in school, our discussion would be more truthful and thus more useful if it included those old words: good and evil.

Digital natives, constructivism, etc

I’ve been following for a long time both the impacts of technology on education and on young people generally, as well discussions of constructivist approaches to teaching. Both have become somewhat marginal to my main concerns.

I agree, of course, that students need to be as tech savvy as possible for them to live as well as they might, both in their careers and in their personal lives. I use many different apps somewhat routinely in my teaching, and I find that although many students need very little instruction in order to use such things as blogs, many others have a very superficial grasp of what the apps they use are doing. When I use difficult programs, such as InDesign and Photoshop, I find that not many young people have any great depth in their understanding of digital tools.

Constructivism has both “good” and “bad” meanings for various teachers. It’s true that we can’t simply move knowledge from one mind to another, and that some active construction is always necessary for the learner. The only effective learning strategy, finally, is thinking. However, so many teachers have turned constructivism into an extreme form of deconstruction–arguing that whatever knowledge or understanding kids construct is the only knowledge or understanding that matters, and that there are no “right” answers. Because of this, I avoid using the term.

A moral compass in a political wilderness

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Lincoln’s epic struggle to understand the conflicts between what is good and true on one hand what is political reality on the other constitutes one of American history’s most engrossing case studies of the rule of law.

Thinking about conflicts between principle and pragmatism take one to the heart of our current dilemmas in law and governance. Should we do whatever it takes to get the outcomes that we want at particular times–being realistic about how far short of our ideals the actual world remains? Or should we hold to principles we believe are good and true, even when they seem to take us places we would rather not go?

Reviewing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s new book, Reading Law, Stephen B. Presser summarizes the argument against prinicple–against rule of law:

The task of a judge is to interpret, not to make, law. It is fashionable today to claim that this view is naive, that words have ineluctably elusive meanings, and that therefore judging is a creative activity, offering license to do justice rather than simply mechanically to apply ancient understandings.

Principles as ancient understandings that we apply mechanically–who could favor that?

But is such mechanical action the main trouble we face in sustaining a republic based on principles and dedicated to establishing justice? Our main trouble, I think, is that principle is being abandoned in the pursuit of desired outcomes. We are increasingly governed by stratagems of power without much reflection about principle at all.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is useful for thinking about this issue. Ackerman‘s take on the film is that “Abe Lincoln was a politician, a good one, and proud of it. He understood that, to do great things, you sometimes had to get your hands dirty.” That seems to place the emphasis in slightly the wrong place.

I would rather say that Lincoln teaches that first and foremost we must identify the most important principle, and then to remain relentlessly true to it, sacrificing as necessary to make it true. All men are equal before the law–if we insist that it is so.

*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.

Will CCSS survive its implementation?

Dead teacher

Schools are remarkably resistant to change.

I like the specific content knowledge that the tribes’ Challenge to Survive series makes available. Using such materials fits quite well into my understanding of the sort of teaching that CCSS is encouraging. However, looking ahead I see that the course I’m enrolled in has a bias in favor of “constructivist” teaching, and that led me to look into what assessments are being planned for the new standards. I find that Linda Darling-Hammond is the chief research consultant for the consortium that is creating the tests that will drive accountability for teachers and school in Montana. That’s reassuring, if you mainly agree with Bill Ayers on what schools are for.

Ho-hum. I have been trying to ignore social justice activists such as Darling-Hammond for years, and I worked through and moved on from constructivist pedagogy years ago as well. I have approximately zero interest in revisiting all those arguments at this point. To a great degree, I think the impetus for CCSS was to undo the harm that such ideas have done in K-12 education.

So will the new standards make any difference?

I need to get my assumptions clear before I’m very motivated to work on details.

  1. The CCSS seeks to reorganize k-12 teaching around literacy–reading and writing–and content knowledge.
  2. CCSS consists of standards. It is not a curriculum.
  3. For CCSS to make a difference at a level that students will experience something different in the classroom, both instructional practices and the curriculum would need significant changes. Leaving aside the challenge of changing instructional practices, either a new curriculum would need to adopted, or a new curriculum would need to be written.
  4. So far, the conversation about implementation in Montana has centered on “alignment.” This suggests that existing curriculum needs to be reorganized under new standards. This is easy enough to do if one interprets the new standards into existing mental categories and definitions. This is a familiar routine. It amounts mostly to adopting new jargon to describe old practices. For example, Rudolf Dreikurs argued in the late 1960s that educators should replace the concept of “punishments” with his ideas about natural and logical consequences. His theories were successful, as such theories go. So schools no longer have punishments–they now have consequences. However, the new consequences bear an uncanny resemblance to the old punishments. It’s easier to create new euphemisms than it is to affect practices.
  5. A further complication is that reasonable people will disagree as to what specific standards mean in practice. The interpretations that will ultimately matter–in terms of accountability–will be those made by authors of the Balanced Assessment tests that will drive both teacher and school accountability, beginning in 2014. Some of the test items have been released but to a great extent what and how the tests measure remain unknown.
  6. The drive for new standards is driven by College Board research that suggests that only about 30% of high school graduates read and write at the level needed for success at college and by the idea that workplace demands on literacy are similar to those at college. The new standards call for a curriculum that is rich in content knowledge and for instructional practices that support routines of close reading and analytical and expository writing that uses that knowledge.
  7. To a great extent, these standards work against conventional wisdom in the profession, which leans heavily toward extolling “creativity” and “higher order” thinking. However, the usual result of using consensual and collaborative processes to get work done is that the conventional wisdom gets repeated. One would expect that using collaborative processes to align curriculum to CCSS will result in little or no real change. Real change would require authoritative processes.
  8. If the goal is to make a serious effort to effect the changes that the CCSS call for, what is needed at this stage is teaching. Teachers need readings and presentations that accurately explain what the standards mean–both what research has called them into being and what teaching practices are actually coherent with the standards.

Changing geographies of possibility

bison

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.

Heritage and history: What are we doing?

Simms HS students at Marias River Massacre site

Marvin Weatherwax and Jerry Buckley from Browning tell the story of what happened for students from Simms High School visiting the Marias River Massacre site.

A distinction I find useful is that between heritage and history. Both use the past, but they use it differently and for different purposes. The contrast was described by Lowenthal in his influential 1999 book Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Ray Brown in the Journal of American Culture summarizes Lowenthal’s distinction, by way of warning us that we are moving into a world where increasingly heritage replaces history:

Lowenthal points out that history–even with our individual and collective interpretations of it–is more real than heritage. Heritage is our naming of selective movements and elements of the past which we collect in order to identify ourselves or justify our actions–sometimes our very existence. Of the two, heritage is more manipulable and commidifiable, less bound by consistency and actuality.

History, Lowenthal hints but does not forthrightly say, tries to explain the present through examination of the past, and is a community exploration and benefit; generally such examinations are without personal and financial gain. Heritage, on the contrary, is an obsession for profit–personal, career, financial gain–and all tied in with an effort to establish and maintain security. But then to be rich in heritage is to be secure. Lowenthal does not point out that history is likely to become more and more heritage as individuals seek personal more than community or national gain, when it is more important to establish real or fake roots than to be a selfless individual part of a growing nation. He also does not suggest that much of this wrong-headed drive comes from our wrong-headed education. Now we in education are far more interested in developing memory than imagination and thinking. Memory is safe, thinking is precarious. (Brown, R. Possessed by the Past. Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA). Volume: 19. Issue: 4. Winter 1996. Page number: 122+)

It seems to me that Indian Education for All (IEFA) is designed to promote heritage rather than history. The content that is to be taught is not specified, but who is authorized to specify it, tribal members, is. For many tribal members and educators, it’s where the money and the opportunity lie, at the moment. I’m not actually opposed to heritage. In fact, I’m an advocate for it. I think all cultures that survive focus on their heritage–teaching the past as much to reinforce and perpetuate cultural ideals as to present the past in all its incoherent and tawdry detail. But I do think what’s happening now in Montana education presents us with situations that we must think through carefully.

As part of a discussion of historical materials dealing with early Flathead Reservation history that might be used in the classroom, I and other students taking an online class focusing on IEFA, watched a lecture on tribal sovereignty by lawyer Dan Decker. His presentation was well-crafted and I found it accurate, though I hasten to add that I’m not a lawyer and certainly no expert on Indian law. I thought it was effective rhetoric given its purpose, which I understood to be making a case for the preservation and perhaps extension of tribal political power.

A person who approaches the vast and complex history of interactions between the federal government and Indian tribes with other purposes might pay more attention to details that Decker elides. For example, Decker quotes Chief Justice Marshall’s argument in Worcester 1832, that the Indian treaty, “in its language, and in its provisions, is formed, as near as may be, on the model of treaties between the crowned heads of Europe.” He does not quote Marshall’s suggestion a year earlier in the Cherokee Nation case that “[t]he condition of the Indians in relation to the United States is perhaps unlike that of any other two people in existence.”

How are these statements to be reconciled? Such questions lie at the heart of historical inquiry. What precisely did happen, what were they thinking, and what are we to make of it? We pick and choose and come to our judgments based, in part, upon what we want and what we anticipate of the future. Arguments about the past are usually also arguments about the future. What is the proper relationship between the federal government and tribes? Answers will vary.

One education goal that has long seemed important to me is taking students to primary sources and giving them questions to try to answer that do not have clear or simple answers. It’s the best way I know of for them to learn how many judgments and interpretations it takes to construct that authoritative voice such as Decker uses, and such as history texts use. What happened in the past comes to seem inevitable, susceptible to one interpretation. I call it “the God voice.” One learns to read history more carefully, I think, by trying to write history from primary documents.

Much is made of the assertion that the relations between the federal government and the tribes were “government to government” and that they can best be understood by using the treaties between the federal government and the European states as the model.

Perhaps. But that is not the impression one is likely to get from reading the arguments that went on among participants in the federal government at the time of the Constitutional Convention in which the Constitution was drafted or in the situations that soon arose under the new government.

One issue that seemed at the center of their thinking was the relationship between the federal government and the state governments. The colonies had been making agreements with Indian tribes from the arrival of the Pilgrims in the early 17th Century, and a host of theories and principles were in play. Should the tribes be dealt with via martial force? Should they be negotiated with via commercial interests? What came to be understood as “the Indian problem” had been on people’s minds from the beginning.

In the late 18th century, one urgent concern among advocates for a strong central government was to deny states any treaty-making power. Putting an end to states dealing directly with tribes was perhaps the paramount concern to the extent Indian tribes entered their thoughts. James Madison was influential in those discussions. Madison thought “the negative on the laws of the States as essential to the efficacy & security of the Genl. Govt,” because the “necessity of a general Govt. proceeds from the propensity of the States to pursue their particular interests in opposition to the general interest.” The Founders feared that if powerful states such as New York were allowed to treat with Indians directly, they would continue expanding their territory and wealth to the detriment of the union overall. Asserting federal supremacy over states when it came to tribes, then, was a more lively concern than was treating tribes the same as European states were treated. This was a critical reason treaties were adopted as the means of dealing with tribes.

Francis Paul Prucha in American Indian Treaties has discussed the extent to which arguments about how to negotiate with tribes grew out of arguments about how the new government itself was to function:

Was treaty making an executive function, a legislative function, or a joint function? The Convention opted for the third choice, and the Constitution in Article II provided: “He [the president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”‘ But how this was to be carried out in practice was not clear from the Constitution itself. Two questions arose: How precisely did the Senate advise and consent in regard to treaties, and were agreements with Indian tribes to follow regular treaty procedures?

After the Constitution was enacted, the differences between tribes and European powers did become a subject of discussion. Specifically, there was concern about the idea of ratification of treaties. Since on the tribal side, those who signed treaties often had access to no formal systems of ratification in a manner similar to what happened in European states, this led to some on the U.S. side to wonder whether ratification was in fact appropriate for these documents.

This was linked to debates about the roles of the executive and the Senate. It was not clear in the Constitution what role each should play in the creation of treaties. Could the executive unilaterally draft and sign treaties, or did the Senate need to be involved in the negotiations? Once the treaties were signed, did the senate need to formally ratify them or were oral communications between the executive and senate committee members sufficient?

I am not suggesting at all that Decker’s conclusions about what, after all the intricate historical currents, tribal sovereignty came to mean are mistaken. On the contrary, I think he is correct. I am merely saying that the more historical detail one has the more complicated the situation becomes. I think the reality is very complicated, and if we hope to be wise I think we need to confront and think about those complexities. At least, that would be my educational goal.

So rather than disagreeing with Decker’s lecture, I am suggesting that his purposes might be different than those of a classroom teacher in a public school, and that such difference might affect how a teacher approaches and uses this document.

One teaching purpose that I endorse is that students should be assisted in thinking about these complex issues at the level of the principles that are involved. This might entail bringing to the fore the very issues that Decker tends to gloss over: What should be done about such consequences of tribal sovereignty as occurred over fishing rights, where one group (non tribal members) became subservient to a government in which they had no rights of representation? When, if ever, should Congress abrogate treaty rights that conflict with other Constitutional principles?

The more such conversations are grounded in historical facts and the best that has been thought and said in the past on the topics of rule of law and constitutional government, the more educative they are likely to be. If such discussions consist merely of putting students in small groups to express their feelings, one would expect little more than aggressive defenses of one’s interests, which is all we are left with if we do not stay committed to learning how to be governed by principles.

What we choose to spend time thinking about

book cover: Scottish Highlanders; Indian Peoples

The story of the McDonald family is a wonderful way to explore the complexities of history in this place. It includes all the big events, but in the context of actual, specific people. Many of the students’ own families can serve a similar purpose. The white/Indian polarity is of very limited usefulness in making sense out of what has happened here. Community and family are richer metaphors than war.

To the question of how I would handle allotment differently to avoid polemics and imbalance, I would suggest that I probably wouldn’t choose it as a major topic. If your interest is in making an argument to increase the power of tribal government, then it’s a good choice. My interest is more in finding a way people from various groups might live together in some version of unity and harmony, so I would look for other topics as my main focus. I think in the end all our lives amount to are what we chose to spend our time thinking about. Remaining angry about injustices that occurred in the distant past is crucial to heritage crusades, but I’m not on a heritage crusade.

Another version of the story of what happened here would focus on families and on marriages, and the way in which marriage between members of the various cultures here was common–I think it’s a much more revealing metaphor to understand the way the two cultures tended to interact than the metaphor of war. The historian Elliot West has pointed out in several contexts that family is the connective tissue of American history. I asked him to give a speech on that topic once, to a group of teachers, and he did.

In general, I think the big story on the Flathead Reservation has to do with the way that people came from all over and encountered people who were already here, and began mingling and marrying, working things out. Marriage and family, I would argue, has been the primary mode of cultural transmission and cultural survival. The big story is not the six people who were killed, that Sam Resurrection talks about. Neither, I think, is it that some people with power took advantage of people with less power and there was suffering. Those stories have some truth and remembering them does serve some purposes.

I am more intrigued by the reality that I am not native but my grandchildren are. Should I feel guilty because my people harmed their people? That’s a little nuts, I think. Many hopeful realities that are clear in this place after more than a century of interactions here are sort of missed by a focus on political grudges.

This appeals to me because I think putting kids out in the community, finding primary documents and interviewing elders is an important teaching strategy. I think all children need to grow up in moral communities to thrive, so for me the highest and best way to meet the goals of IEFA would be to get students in personal contact with people in their home communities who can pass on cultural understandings in a more or less traditional way–by direct contact.

We even have a wonderful resource for the Flathead Reservation, though it has unfortunately gone out of print. James Hunter’s Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family traces the history of the McDonald family through its sources in both the culture of Scottish Highlanders and in the Nez Perce peoples of Montana and Idaho.

I was going to do more, focusing on what we see of Allotment by focusing on one member of the McDonald family. Alas, I’m out of time for now. I picked Duncan partly because I read somewhere (I haven’t been able to relocate it yet) that he favored Allotment because he saw it in terms of business opportunity, and that he took atn allotment at the Northern Pacific Depot in Ravalli. He then formed a freight company, hauling goods from the railroad to Flathead Lake and back. I have no source for that right now, and I’m not sure it’s accurate. I’m relying on memory. In any case, my point would be to complicate the story of Alottment by including examples of mixed bloods who did not oppose it. Here are some traces of Duncan McDonald I was able to find in a couple hours online.

Here’s the story of a homesteader to the Flathead that includes quite a lot of that perspective on Allotment (as well as earier and later events). It’s a document I located when I was doing similar work with students some years ago. Here’s a miscellany of historical facts I put together to introduce students to the topic–I called it “The Expedition to 1910.”

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.