Save the culture? First, we must save ourselves

story-file0002003501002Rod Treher argues that conservatives need to do better at presenting their views through stories.

Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”

Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.

Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”

Dreher argues that ordinary people understand policies through stories. This is not a new idea. James Davison Hunter critiques it in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. He points out that Evangelicals “have been distinguished by their massive cultural output in books and book publishing, magazines, radio, music, bible studies, theology, Christian education at all levels, and so on” (29). This cultural production has not ended their cultural marginalization, and Hunter offers eleven propositions that might explain why creating conservative stories probably won’t lead to a conservative renaissance in the larger culture.

One of these is that “cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.” Though sometimes economic revolutions and social movements appear to result from mobilizing ordinary people, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and managment within spheres of social life. Even where impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” (41).

Dreher notes correctly that “Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.” It probably is a precursor. But the distance that will remain to be traveled even if conservatives develop powerful stories is daunting. Dreher stops short of arguing that stories are sufficient to cause widespread changes in the culture, and if Hunter is correct, such change usually requires the participation of elites and their institutions:

…cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change—period. They are certainly resistant to the mere exertion of will by ordinary individuals or by a well-organized movement of individuals. The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that “in one generation, you change the whole culture”13 is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in culture typically take place over the course of multiple generations. The most profound changes in culture can be seen first as they penetrate into the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it then penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organize social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.

In this light, we can see that evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts—if effective—all bring about good ends: changed hearts and minds, changed laws, changed social behaviors. But they don’t directly influence the moral fabric that makes these changes sustainable over the long term, sustainable precisely because they are implicit and as implicit, they form the presuppositional base of social life. Only indirectly do evangelism, politics, and social reform effect language, symbol, narrative, myth, and the institutions of formation that change the DNA of a civilization.

Imagine, in this regard, a genuine “third great awakening” occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society—the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church—revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.

Dreher holds out the hope that “if conservatives become better storytellers, they might save the culture.” They might, but I suspect a more useful goal might be to strengthen families and churches, to withstand onslaughts from a dominant culture than knows how to care for neither.

Narrative Environment: Two views of Virginia City, 1863

From “Better than myth” by Annick Smith, in The Last Best Place, Montana Historical Society, 1988, p. 260.
A real storyteller. . .speaks in a voice as individual and quirky and full of nuance as your own would be in your best dreams. Here, for instance, is Mary Ronan, remembering her girlhood in the gold-mining camp of Virginia City in 1863:

There were tall buttercups and blue flags in the valley. Up Alder Gulch snow and timber lilies bloomed, wild roses and syringa grew in sweet profusion and flowering current bushes invited canaries to alight and twitter. . .Robins, meadowlarks, bluebirds, blackbirds. . .bluejays, crows and magpies lured us from where men were ravishing the gulch.

And here’s what schoolteacher Thomas Dimsdale wrote in his famous Vigilantes of Montana about the same town in the same year. He is describing the events that led to the hanging of Captain J. A. Slade:

J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilanter; he openly boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. . .He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into stores; break up bars, toss the scales out of doors, and use the most insulting language to parties present.

Can this be the same place? Which version is truest? What does “true” mean when you are talking about literature? And how has Mary Ronan’s experience altered our vision of gold camps and outlaws and vigilantes?
Beyond the voice of the storyteller, serious writing is about character and conflicts and the moral consequences of a person’s actions.

Leading students into engagement

Schools cannot be made great by great teacher performances. They will only be made great by great student performances. –Phillip C. Schlechty, Working on the Work

Phillip Schlechty suggests that the primary role of teachers is leader rather than of facilitator, as favored by constructionists, or coach, as favored by the Coalition of Essential Schools.

I think this is right. A high school teacher’s main problem in this age of mass education is a lack of authentic engagement by students. Once students are engaged, both coaching and facilitating—not to mention lecturing and assigning—can be quite effective.

To get what Schlechty calls “authentic engagement” teachers need to lead. He points out that the work of teachers has more in common with the work of other leadership professionals such as business executives, clergy, and military officers than it does with the work of diagnosticians or physicians. This is helpful to keep in mind as the medicalization of education continues apace.

The real work for teachers comes into focus when we consider the five patterns of engagement that Schlechty describes:

Authentic engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

“Authentic” comes to our lips so easily these days that thoughtful people will hesitate before uttering it, but Schlechty’s list is useful nonetheless. Many teachers, even those in very good schools, are content with passive compliance and ritual engagement. On some days, any teacher would be thankful to achieve a class that was ritually engaged. In countless well-managed classrooms most students are well-behaved and busy with productive work with few or no students authentically engaged. Indeed, honor students can learn quite a lot and do quite well on tests with these levels of engagement.

On some days or for some classes, this is no doubt enough. Our world puts lots of demands on us to learn things, and it’s only sane to comply and to get the rituals down. In the last week I needed to learn the controls of an unfamiliar digital camera, figure out how to use a new preloaded syringe to give myself medical injections, gather background on a political leader that circumstances have dictated I will be working with in the near future, and figure out why my website was taking visitors to random pages after they submitted an email form to us. None of this was done with great passion. I complied with my plight and went through the familiar rituals. It’s how we live now.

But as schools trend toward being ritual centers, they anaesthesize those within them. If young people hit the books only because they want to get into good colleges and get high-paying jobs, they may be deaf to the highest ideals of our culture. If students study only to register higher scores on competitive tests, they may be sleepwalking through the sublime realities less distracted travelers encounter in science and literature. And if we–the leaders–spend valuable class time coaching kids to score better on tests and writing assessments, we are contributing to a phony culture where trophies trump accomplishments. We are saying quite clearly that scores matter more than deep learning.

To get kids engaged in real work is a leadership challenge. In fact, getting good performances from others—helping them find their voices–is nearly always a leader’s most important work. Leaders inspire, coach, share information, ensure emotional support, arrange opportunities and resources, provide scaffolding for aspects of the performance that are still too difficult, facilitate associations with peers and mentors, and arrange recognition for accomplishments.

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course. It’s what good teachers have always done.

But we all know that it isn’t always done. We wouldn’t have to visit many classes in a typical high school to see lots of passive compliance.

What intrigues me about heritage teachers who consistently get high quality intellectual products from students is the skill with which they put before students work that engages them. I’ve noted several factors about that place-based research that students have said are important:

1. It is real work. The projects are organized with a final public exhibition as a mission. The need to have a complex finished product by a specified deadline gives the work shape and energizes the participants.

2. The work is important. Students believe they are preserving history that will otherwise be lost, or giving voice to people who would otherwise be silent. They believe this because their teachers and others aren’t shy about telling them what they are doing is important.

3. The work is social. Students get to be part of a team that has a mission—getting ready for a public performance. This gives them a reason for being together and things worth talking about. Since they are dependent on each other for how well things work out, what they do matters. Also, community mentors, parents and grandparents, and outside experts get involved with the work. People like being involved in things that lots of other people are involved in

We know that what students learn is affected by the effort they put into the work at least as much as it is by their intellectual ability. A great deal of attention should be paid to the quality of work that teachers provide. I believe that place-based research projects provide one of the most straightforward ways to engage students in real work—work that is inherently important, work that is inherently social, and work that has natural audiences beyond the classroom—and that heritage projects should be a part of the curriculum in every school.

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.

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.

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.”