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.

An autumn frame of mind

In a sense, nature has no endings. Things repeat and repeat in patterns large and small. Through all that humans are a trajectory that gets higher and broader., if we will hear and see.

In a sense, nature has no endings. Things repeat and repeat in patterns large and small. Through all that commotion and continuity, a person may choose a trajectory that speaks of permanent things.

I’m paying more attention now than I ever have to bird migrations—the scale of which is staggering—at the same time I’m feeling a deepening discontent with where I am, intellectually and spiritually. I sense unseen movements taking form around me and being answered within me. Because I’m at work during the days, the most vivid parts of my life now seem to be sunsets in a world becoming more autmnal by the day.

At work, the officialese about change has become a habit for many people, a way of nodding off or going with whatever flow the guy at the front of the room is peddling. It gives an illusion of having mastered what we have not mastered and do not, I suspect, even see. It feels a bit stultifying.

But outside toward evening the geese in small family flocks rehearse flying in formation, from wetland to grainfield and back. Hundreds of geese in groups of 8 or 9 or 20 in constant commotion. Much of the summer they’ve been at nests in families, feeding on shoots, unable to fly due to the molt. Soon they will form up into larger flocks for a thousand mile trip, probably to Utah or Nevada or Arizona. Their great migratory flights almost define the seasons.

Watching them gives me an odd feeling of kinship, seeing a group that allows a kind of individuality in which all take care of each. The birds stay in family groups all year, feeding and nesting and migrating together. This year’s babies will return to this place next year with their parents.

If one goose goes down along the way due to injury or illness, two others peel off and accompany it, staying with it until it recovers or dies, then rejoining whatever flock is passing. Geese are intelligently social, and they allow others to join their flocks, though the original pair, which mate for life, remain in charge and the current year’s youngsters remain their priority.  They maintain hierarchies, one of which is visible in their flight formation. It’s not a rigid hierarchy and leading is more a burden than an indicator of superiority. The lead goose changes fairly often. When the leader gets tired, it drops back and another goose, male or female, takes the lead. The unity is gorgeous and it keeps them safe.

Right now all this year’s youngsters are in full flight, and they are everywhere, highly visible out on open water and in the sky.

Some birds have already left. I don’t see the osprey anymore. The blackbirds—both yellow-headed and red-winged—are still here but with the nesting over they are no longer territorial. They move about in flocks numbering in the thousands. What I’m appreciating this year about migrations is the deep focus on moving on. A tern will fly right past a savory mess of fish offered up for free (though gulls, which are going nowhere, erupt in a noisy contest for a morsel). The birds suddenly ignore the normal temptations and distractions because they are filled with a larger purpose.

The great human migrations have often been like that. In America, the great migrations of black people from the south to the north and people from all over the world, including those of my tribe, into the West display a similar focus on a vaguely grasped promise of something that must lie ahead.

At work, when I escape the change agents, I’ve been reading in preparation for a Holocaust unit I teach to sixteen-year-olds. I’m approaching it by analyzing the two cultures that were in conflict: the Jews and the modern social Darwinists. One feature of the Jews that caught my attention was that they are the first nation ever that came into being while on a journey. Abraham was going toward something and, later, so were the followers of Moses. What they left mattered less than what they looked toward. Their nation did not develop slowly over ages in a fixed place like the English or the French. They were formed around some words and a covenant that bound them to each other and to a shared purpose, and they inhabited change like their truest home.

For people of the Book, the real migration was a spiritual journey, from one state of being to something harder to understand and more liberating to live. We now live  at a time when many people are finding kindred experiences. Things once vital wither. The green turns gold. Things fall apart.  And yet there is something ahead, something worth preparing for, something worth heading toward.

Visiting the high country

Going-to-the Sun: a visit to the high country is sometimes a visit to the past and sometimes a glimpse of eternity.

Going-to-the Sun: a visit to the high country is sometimes a visit to the past and sometimes a glimpse of eternity.

I grew up in a place where one could walk three miles east and leave the world we have built and re-enter the world that has always been. I still live there. Since history is directional and our minds are steeped in history, moving into undeveloped nature is like moving into the past, into the world as it used to be. A little bit of the world I usually inhabit is developed, somewhat. Town consists of small collection of buildings and fewer than a thousand people. There’s probably a three-story building somewhere in town, but at the moment I can’t think of one. Walk a mile in any direction and you will have left the town behind.

Probably more people live in the country now than in town proper. So the countryside outside town has lots of houses—on most roads you can rarely travel more than a quarter mile without passing one. There are more newer houses, mostly fancier than those in town, than older ones. Everyone wants to live in the country, at their own Walden Pond, though with satellite connections to the Internet and television—to those media dense with signs that refer to themselves, where meaning and value have been lost.

The fact that in less than hour’s walk I can leave all that re-establishes its somewhat ephemeral quality. Very quickly, I can be in a place that seems untouched by history, though in many places stumps and old skid trails are subtle traces of logging. Visiting the high country is a form of time travel. The walk often leads through dense cedar groves along the creek, where at ground level all is in deep shade and nothing grows, up through opens stands of Ponderosa Pine and a thick understory, home to nuthatches and catbirds and waxwings. The mountains is forested in a rich mosaic of conifers, including varieties of pine, fir, larch and spruce. At higher elevations, the vegetation thins.

Awakening at a lake above tree line in the crisp thin air (treeline varies depending on exposure to wind or sun, but in Montana it tends to be around 9,000 feet), you are in a climate that moves from winter through a brief spring then back into winter. At the end of July small streams from melting glaciers water the spring wildflowers and grass. The alpine world is very young, with plants struggling to establish and maintain themselves.

In such moments, one sees again the first day of Creation.

Reality hides itself

Female Black-headed Grosbeak was staying deep in the foliage of a maple tree, watching but calling no attention to herself.

This female Black-headed Grosbeak was staying deep in the foliage of a maple tree, watching but calling no attention to herself.

I was paying attention to the discreet birds today, the ones that you have to sit still and watch closely to see: the nuthatches, pine siskins, warblers, catbirds.

The raptors at the top of the food chain, Red-tailed Hawks or Bald Eagles, like to perch high and visible so they can see the terrain around them. But many birds understand that though they may be predators they are also prey. Today, their caution and discretion seems admirable.

We live in an expressive society, based more on therapeutic myths than any established wisdom from philosophy or religion, full of people driven by the strange hope that baring their souls to strangers will lead to connection and healing that they sense they need. It can be costly, needing to be noticed and admired, wanting the be the prettiest bird on the highest branch whose song is heard everywhere.

Other birds at any particular moment are more intent on seeing than on being seen. It takes patience and effort to see them at all. Catching a glimpse of a Marsh Wren or a Yellow Warbler always reminds me of how much of reality we normally don’t see. The Divine characteristically hides itself, and some revelation is available only to those whose desire leads them to effort and endurance. The highest knowledge, Socrates suggested, is always a gift from the divine, a tanager that appears suddenly on a blue spruce bough after hours of looking. It should not be profaned by disclosure to the unworthy. Besides, they can’t receive it. It is foolishness to them. It’s not really a secret. It’s sacred.

End Times: peace and strife

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Toward sunset I put aside whatever daily tasks remain and go out to see what I can see in a wilder place. Several refuges or wilderness areas are nearby. The wetland is nearest, and because it is open country it’s a good place to see birds and other wildlife. It’s a good place to stand  as present as possible to a day coming to an end.

The wetland is part of a bird refuge, quite wild in a way, though we live in days when all such places have become gardens, shaped by human activities and human intentions. Several agencies—federal, state and tribal—collaborate along with private landowners to agree on how the gardening should proceed. A map of land ownership shows a strongly checkerboarded view, though when one is in the middle of it, the abstractions are less compelling than what lives and moves there, such as the Trumpeter Swans, reintroduced a few years ago. The power lines that traverse the refuge have spinning reflective cards on them, to reduce the mortality of swans and other birds that have no nearly invisible cables running through the skies of their evolutionary history.

I took the photograph because I was moved by the peacefulness and harmony of the scene at last light. To the left, the western sky was a more dramatic interplay of vivid sunset colors. To the right, the jagged majesty of the Mission Mountains, purple sedimentary mudstone with white glaciers and pink clouds, was more of a spectacle. But the view to the north had a quietness that I found attractive.

Not that I’m naïve about the details hidden by the scale at which I focus on that panoramic view. The biology of earth is premised on death. Plants may eat the air (especially carbon dioxide), but most eating involves the death of something else. Among we creatures, we are always potential food for another member of the community.

collageBloody in tooth and claw: Osprey with fish, Kingbird with insect, Red-tailed Hawk with baby skunk.

And yet, that’s never all we are. We recognize and respond to the beauty and the sense of calm which persists around and through the brief flurries of struggle. In shifting our focus from the struggle to the calm, we change the pulse and tempo of experience, as we do when we shift our focus back to this particular hawk tearing at the flesh of this particular skunk. Both are present to us only so far as we are present to them. This is the stuff we are made of.

True religion, I think, deals mainly with immanence. Spirit animates us, and we see that whatever we are we are distributed through a world in which objects and settings circulate through each other. I have a plug-in in my bag—Sibley’s field guide—which allows me to upload centuries of accumulated gleanings into the thoughts and desires already circulating amid the pink of the northern sky and the crisp slice of an osprey veering through the space just above me, the dead fish neatly aligned aerodynamically in his left claw. The breeze lifts my hair and brings me the spicy fragrance of hundreds of Russian Olives, blooming yellow. Making a photograph is one way to pray, to turn attention to the circulation of this world through me.