The experience of the young is, increasingly, that every human attachment is basically voluntary. Life is all about designing oneself according to an ever-expanding menu of choices provided by an increasingly free, prosperous, and globalizing society. A choice, they’ve been told, is nothing more or less than a preference, and nobody can tell an individual why he or she should prefer this rather than that, as long as he or she doesn’t violate the rights of another chooser. Deep down, our students don’t know whether they are or will be parents, children, creatures, citizens or friends. All they’re told is that in our wonderful, enlightened, high-tech world, such commitments are up to them.
. . .They have almost limitless freedom in choosing what to study, and hardly anything moral or intellectual is required of them. What few requirements are imposed on students are so broad and flexible as to point them in no particular direction at all. In the name of freedom and diversity, little goes on in college that gives them any guidance concerning who they are or what to choose.
Driving home from the state capital the other day, the brilliant light flaming in winter-bare cottonwoods along the river where snow was just beginning to fall, part of me wanted to stop and explore, while another part was tracking promises that should be kept.
I kept driving, enjoying my glide through the mountain landscape at more than a mile a minute, feeling the grip of steel-belted radials on the exquisitely engineered curves and rises of I-90, listening to an audio recording about Alexander the Great written by first century C.E. biographer Arrian on my Subaru’s stereo.
It was great fun, hurtling through space encased in layers and layers of engineering and design. I was seeing the river from a point of view unavailable to earlier travelers. A fur trader wet to the hips trudging the river bank with forty-odd pounds of traps or a Salish hunter returning cautiously from Three Forks leading game-laden ponies could have imagined my swift and comfortable journey only as something supernatural.
Though watching the world through a window seems quite natural, it is actually the product of centuries of accumulated artifice and construction. And it was only one of the points of view available to me. I also had at my fingers instant access to information that would help me see the river as part of a vast hydrological cycle, or as a constantly changing habitat for fish, or as a potential real estate development, or as a likely site for a heap-leach gold mine.
It is such a richness available today that creates the most daunting challenge for young people, and thus for teachers. A young person has before him or her endless points of view constructed of arguments and facts, and endless choices about what points of view to inhabit supported by web sites, pamphlets, videos, reports, and songs.
Our noisy and contentious world gains meaning and coherence only as a conscious observer, paying attention to some things and not others, creates a point of view. Young people need to learn how to pay attention and how to decide decide where to look. This is nothing new. Such help was once the main point of education, and teachers guided young people into science and history, providing a good grounding in reason and evidence, learning to see things intelligently, in ways that linked the thriving of the individual to the needs of the community and the nation–indeed, of civilization.
No more. As modernity dissolved the authority of all but the self, voices raised on behalf of the community were lost in a cacophonous crescendo of other voices competing for attention. In this world, teachers speak with little or no more authority than many others–advertisers, propagandists, rap artists, seducers, marketing reps, and thousands of others who would enlist the young in their causes, organize them into their purposes, or sell them the accouterments of an identity.
Now we hear that being moral is just one way of life, among many. Official education competes amid the din lowering its aim, promising money and jobs.
It might help to remember God did not speak to us as thunder from the sky. He came among us as a man without credentials, speaking in a man’s voice, saying things one must have wanted to hear to hear, that were only be true for those who decided to live them before they became true. No one has to listen.
Quieter voices note that money beyond a modest amount does not bring happiness, that the economy is a fickle god that has often left its devotees stranded and alone. And other voices abide: those people in the community, especially the elderly, who have worked for years to accomplish good work. Every town has them: people who build museums, organize food pantries, develop management plans for rivers or forests, run 4-H programs, establish gardens, or operate successful businesses.
A community that is worried that its children might get lost in the modern barrage of voices–those of revolutionaries, those of addiction merchants–will want to be sure that its own voices are among those heard at school.
In my experience, through the simple act of gathering and telling the stories of ordinary members of the community, students can learn much of enduring value, including the important insight that ordinary people have survived, always, through acts of nobility and heroism, and that learning to see this and understand it is one of the important keys to happiness. They also learn what they need to learn in the official version of schooling–how to sort through information, how to select facts that are useful, and how to combine data into coherent narratives that move the work forward.
A peaceful world is not a boring world, without conflict. It is a busy world, where people somewhat heroically show up on time with their assignment done and the deadline met, looking past personal conflicts and complications so they can keep the lights on at the hospital, the shelves stocked at the supermarket, and the furnace running quietly in the nursery. Much of the work of peace is giving the ordinary its true voice, so that those who want what it tells about will know where and how to look.
By the time I made it home, Alexander had died in Babylon and snow had closed the passes behind me, but I had time to shower and review my notes before meeting my evening class.