The local always includes the global (in ways ideologues may not grasp)

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs "work" (or don't work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about--and may not know that they do not know.

Experts who discuss education fluently at the level of abstractions but cannot or do not regularly think through how their designs “work” (or don’t work) in the minds of particular students may not know, actually, what they are talking about–and may not know that they do not know.

I’ve worked on encouraging local studies at the secondary level for years. In thinking about a label for our work, I finally decided on “community-centered” since the real work has to do with slipping out of ideological abstractions to include the actual as we can only experience it locally–using community in a broad sense to include plants and animals as well as persons and families–in whatever universal and global phenomena we examine.

Over on Front Porch, Charles Carman contemplates the difficulty of separating local concerns from global concerns:

The problem with emphasizing localism over globalism is that this emphasis is harder to prescribe than it is to identify in our own experience. Understanding localism primarily as against globalism does not define localism (or globalism). Living locally cannot not mean joining a tribe, completely isolated from the outside world. Local and global are permeated by each other. Every town is local and global. Coffee is not local to anywhere in the lower forty-eight, even if the coffee shop is. Consider a trader on the New York Stock Exchange. His job is the global markets and yet he knows when to tip his favorite bartender generously. He spends much on the local economy. He has small talk at his favorite halal cart, knows his tailor by name. He changes the price of aluminum in Europe in the morning and asks for the usual in the evening. Granted, a city in Idaho does not have a community of stock brokers, but more likely a community of farmers. Nonetheless, whether a place is a port city or Midwest town, it participates in varying degrees of global and local integration. And however localism is understood, surely it is must be hospitable to the stranger.

The local always includes the national and global, but those who think about the national or global do not always manage to consider the local. Their thought and their ideas are dangerously incomplete. A simple test for experts: ask them to translate their thoughts into particular, concrete illustrations. Someone who understands something deeply and thoroughly knows how it appears at a conceptual level, but also what it looks at the local level–which is to say, in the actual world inhabited by practitioners.

Philodendron Rules (teaching the vision of goodness)

Revised (original post)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 (Duchess of Edenburgh clematis)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 (Duchess of Edenburgh clematis)

Years ago I spent time trying to understand what “goodness” meant. I knew Aristotle’s notion that “goods” where what people pursued–peace, wealth, more comfortable sandals–but I wanted something more vital and clear than that. What I eventually came to, after dozens of detours and cul-de-sacs, was that goodness was essentially a vision of life as we want it. Most importantly, it was the vision of life one can glimpse as through a glass darkly in sacred literature–the vision that deity has revealed and is revealing. We gather the light here a little and there a little, if we seek it with honest hearts and real intent.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? Teachers may confront that question, along with the question of how to talk intelligibly about it, because we sometimes meet young people who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children. (Evil, of course, also has an ecology–it is a complex web of oppositions to the vision of goodness.)

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to a garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was gift. That meant that it wasn’t really ours, in a fundamental way. We were completely dependent on much that we could not see and did not understand. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of remaining forever children.

The way back to the garden, we have learned, is to re-create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it. We grow from creature to creator.

And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

As Wendell Berry has noted, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.

Saving a remnant: most children left behind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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