Monday, June 23, 2014

What's Your Story? What's Ours?

Reflection on last week's institute at Emory University sponsored by Southern Association of Independent Schools with Michael G. Thompson and Rob Evans. Psychologist Michael G. Thompson is author of Raising Cain, Best Friends Worst Enemies, The Pressured Child, and others. Rob Evans is author of The Human Side of School Change, Family Matters, and others.

During the last hour of structured time at a three-day institute for school administrators, Michael G. Thompson introduced a concept that reframed all the other topics we had discussed. In fact, the concept that we all operate according to the "narrative" we tell about ourselves (or about our groups) applies as well to personal life, analysis of news, and history.

"Story" in Educational Institutions
Evans, too, had approached "narrative" from the angle of naturalist Stephen Jay Gould's statement that Homo Sapiens is a pattern-finding animal.  In a school, when we leaders approach change, we must know that we'll be disturbing patterns in the community's lives, and every gain will be balanced by loss.

We should listen to learn the story of those in opposition. Instead of arguing with it, we should look for a counter-story from within the same community.  Thompson gave the example of the school that told itself the story -- in meetings and teacher's lounge chats -- of how a winter storm ruined the year and made everything impossible. The counter-story emerged when one teacher explained that she wasn't so bothered by the uproar because, compared to the death of her husband, it was all pretty petty. Just hearing her counter story lifted the morale of the whole faculty, as they adjusted their own collective "narrative."

A person's "narrative" defines a person's "identity." Evans and Thompson illustrated this by imagining a teacher who has lectured for thirty years, increasingly angry at diminishing returns. "The students get lazier every year," he says. "They can't concentrate. They don't take notes the way they used to." Try to tell him that experiments and brain imaging show that he will reach more students more deeply if he allows for their active participation in their own learning. He will deny the evidence because his identity is threatened. In his own story, he is the last defender of high standards, the voice of reason standing up against increasing waves of stupidity. To admit anything else would be to question the value of his entire career.
I suppose the way into dealing with that teacher would be to ask, "Can you think of a time when the students were suddenly engaged?"  Or:  "Have you ever been totally caught up in learning something since you left school?"  I bet his answer would involve something besides a lecture.

"Story" in Private and Public Life
By coincidence, several programs aired Sunday afternoon on Atlanta's NPR station focused on ramifications for our being "pattern-finding animals." The T.E.D. Talks program gave us an editor of Skeptic magazine who said that we are "hard-wired" to have religious faith because we like to see patterns -- stories -- in events. The "Radio Lab" program focused on neurons that interpret sound waves as pleasing patterns that we call music, and analyzed how the unrecognized patterns in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring frustrated the audience's neurons, causing an excessive release of dopamine that in turn caused temporary schizophrenic behavior -- the famous Paris riot of 1913. 

Mom was skeptical of all this until I told her a couple of our family "stories." Grandmother Smoot's story, to which all of her favorite anecdotes contributed, was "Cinderella" in reverse: privileged firstborn child, daughter of the mayor in the best house on the top of the hill, planned to go to college -- until the first boy was born to the family.  Then the father sold the house to buy a series of businesses that failed, savings went to the  baby brother, and the little princess became the hard-working serving girl, struggling to support herself and the family. Oh, and she lost Prince Charming to the Great War and had to settle for his younger brother. My Mom's story? She was the apple of her father's eye, adored and spoiled; then she was adored and spoiled by her husband; the story continues in her viduity. 

The Bible fits all stories into one grand narrative of God's plan to make Israel the "light of the world."  Christians see themselves as picking up the slack when, according to their narrative, Israel lost its sense of mission to the world.

Americans, from the earliest colonial days, have absorbed Israel's story into its own, as waves of "God's chosen people" crossed the sea to their Promised Land. In the name of this "manifest destiny," God commanded them to clear out all the native people and to make a "city on the hill" to save the world.   Ideological purity in politics today stems from this meta narrative. The story of Israel, right on into New Testament times, is of a people who let go of their first enthusiasm and who go after the ways of other gods or, in New Testament terms, "the ways of this world."  Americans of a certain stripe feel that they carry on the mission alone. 

When shocked by statements of those politicians who wear the mantle of "conservative" "traditional" and "Christian" values, I can see how every fact fits into this meta-narrative. The "liberal" tenets must be denied without exception, whether these include gun control, climate change legislation, path to citizenship for immigrants, cooperation among states on a "common core" of learning standards, or affordable health insurance for all.

So I shouldn't be shocked when a Tea Party candidate in Mississippi states that "compromise" is how America got into "this mess" -- as if the Founders' "original intent" had been something other than to force compromise at all levels of government.   Denial of compromise on any issue isn't a matter for reason, or even for "belief."

For today's brand of "conservative," as for that veteran teacher, it's a matter of identity.

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