The higher learning: final thoughts on PHS

by Michael Umphrey

Meghan Speckert, the editor of Salishian, gave me this assignment: “Since this high school is going through drastic changes, where do you think the school is going? What do you think of this educational system?” I repeatedly gave her good reasons why I didn’t want to do that. But Meghan is persistent–bullheaded, you might say.

She and I have read some significant texts together this year—a large book on John Locke, Thoreau’s Walden, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Plato’s Apology, Eliot’s The Wasteland and many other readings. We discussed these in early morning meetings, after school, a few times on weekends, and we met throughout last summer to discuss some of the big ideas in great books.

We did this at her insistence. In most cases, she made the choices as to what to read, and she set the schedule to fit her other obligations. She got no extra points or grades or credits. She has a genuine interest in what we might call “the higher learning,” and she reminds me of what I’ve always loved about teaching. I’m inclined to do for her whatever I can.

So, where do I think the school is going? If you want to predict a people’s future, your best bet is to figure out what vision is guiding them. Desire drives human history–what we want amid what we think is possible or likely. PHS has not escaped the fate of many schools in recent decades–being captured by late modernist ideology, which is a political vision. Schools have been transformed into massive factories for the production of political opinion—standardized, uniform, flat-souled. It’s not an inspiring vision, but for the winners it sometimes pays well. Meanwhile, dystopias have become the dominant genre of pop literature. People are drawn to stories of zombies—the spiritually dead driven by insatiable appetite—or vampires—creatures who live by devouring the life force in others. We sense that things have gone wrong, that the human world has been impoverished.

Powerful interests set the agenda, and “experts” market the new phrases and ideas in magazines such as Educational Leadership and at conferences such as School Administrators of Montana (SAM). Counselors get the appropriate posters in the mail and tack them up around school. New programs are rolled out and most staff adapt the new buzzwords—a few feign enthusiasm and most offer due compliance without much change in practice.

I would expect the future in the near term to be quite like the present. People with little background in history, literature and philosophy have few resources with which to critique the endless repetition of political orthodoxy. They may advocate critical thinking but they can’t quite practice it.

I have seen fewer students like Meghan each year. Late modernist thought is quite relativistic. Bit if no opinions are better than other opinions, there’s little point in putting the work into understanding what Socrates or Locke or Thoreau thought. Since I”ve been at PHS, I don’t recall ever hearing a leader justify education in any terms except self-interest and careerism. We no  longer talk about truth, beauty and justice. The new verities are race, class, gender—and material success. For students who have been taught that education is mainly vocational—a means to a higher income—the focus shifts to finding the quickest and most convenient way to get to the payoff. “How many points is this worth?”

Of course, I’m not saying that work is unimportant. Work—effort toward a goal—is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves is determined in large part by the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young don’t always know this, which is why guidance into wise and persistent work should be the foundation of the education we offer our young.  The question is only whether we live to work instead of working to live.

We need purposes beyond what we do for money if we are to fulfill our promise. The economy is important but it’s not the only game in town—nor is it the most important. Everyone knows this. Lately we hear a lot about civic education and about character education. Eventually, we need to get beyond just talk.

A good education helps us be better citizens, better friends, better parents. It’s useful to know how to change the oil, but there are higher games.

Imagine a chimpanzee at a baseball game, maybe standing on third base. He can see the batter, the runners, and the glittering lights of the scoreboard. What he can’t see is the game itself. There is a level of reality that isn’t accessible to him. He can’t comprehend what’s involved in being in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the count 3-2. He could never figure out what a bunt is, let alone why it might be used. He can’t wake up to a reality that, for him, will never exist.

We’re all like that to varying degrees. We’re all surrounded by levels of play that are invisible to us. Things are happening that we do not see, though they are right in front of us. This is why the secret of life remains a secret even though our greatest teachers in every generation shout it from the rooftops—people cannot or will not hear it

It might be helpful to think about what religion professor James P. Carse has called “the infinite game.” He said, “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game.” Football is a finite game. Gardening is an infinite game. A political campaign is a finite game. A family is an infinite game.

In a finite game, winners exclude losers. In an infinite game, winners teach losers better plays.

In a finite game, the winner takes all. In an infinite game, winning is widely shared.

In a finite game, rules are fixed in advance to guarantee a single winner. In an infinite game, rules are changed along the way by agreement.

In a finite game, energy is focused in decisive contests. In an infinite game, energy is invested in the long term.

Finite games focus on how they end. Infinite games focus on how they continue. Good schools–like good communities, good economies and good families–are playing an infinite game. They may include finite games within them, but they ensure that these games don’t displace the larger play or corrupt it. We could have a sports program that didn’t harm academic studies. Carse ends his book with a statement that bears further reflection: there is but one infinite game.

The story of that one infinite game is the story that historically the best schools have organized their practices around. In the west, the main plot of that story has been the coming into the world of justice and freedom. But to a great extent we’ve lost that story.

In recent decades, people have focused on gaining power over the natural world, mainly through science. This has been tremendously successful, and we are all blessed by what we have learned. Our trouble today is that the large systems we have built continue operating but no longer seem under our control. We have elaborate processes of change which are increasingly disconnected from human purposes. We see everywhere the constant agitation of people adjusting to some directive from afar—coping with changes that experts say are needed has become a way of life in most of our institutions. So, many of us learn to comply without really knowing or believing the changes make life better. We abdicate responsibility for what, day by day, we are doing.

In schools, we endure constant disruption and endless new programs engineered to comply with such directives as No Child Left Behind or the Common Core, but test scores stay flat. Meanwhile, we neglect the great topics that once lay at the center of a general education for young people: freedom and justice. The liberal arts not so long ago focused on stories of heroes in history and literature  who lived in a moral universe where death was the horizon but the quest was driven by love as fierce as that homing instinct that drives millions of birds into annual migrations over thousands of miles. The great stories helped us understand the practice of honesty, hope, gratitude, courage and other virtues. We consciously taught our youth that it mattered whether or not they were the sort of people who could be trusted and reliable partners in business, political and personal undertakings.

Much of that is gone now. The modern world is full of miracles, and yet in some ways it is harder than ever to be young. PHS hallways featured suicide prevention posters all year, for good reason. Many young people do not know how to form and preserve enduring relationships. The two most important education books of recent years, Our Kids by liberal researcher Robert Putnam and Coming Apart by conservative researcher Charles Murray, both drew on the same mountain of research and reached similar conclusions: the main cause of our growing social pathologies is the collapse of marriage culture, leaving many kids without the support of strong families. Loneliness is a national problem as we isolate ourselves in individual autonomy and a web of virtual ghosts. We make little effort to teach young people the real basics of living a good life. Instead, we decorate our schools to look like the Capitol in Hunger Games, with banners proclaiming POWER! and PRIDE!

The good news is that anyone who wants to can begin living by different rules. We can choose to pursue the higher learning. We can make the great books our most important peer group, replace a desire for autonomy with a commitment to loyalty, practice making and keeping promises, and act to rescue the others we see hurting around us. You can choose to live among the society of heroes. It turns out to be far easier than the alternatives, and much more fun.

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