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Know the West



Freshmen are staring at a poem. This is a strange and frightening thing. Through the windows, we are painted briefly in changeable light. Late-winter weather swirls up the Columbia Gorge, reminding Portland of its place in this big world. It’s a beautiful moment, somehow poignant. Should be good for poetry.

Yet I know that some of these students are flatlanding — taking the poem literally, misunderstanding its metaphors, not hearing its emotion, wondering why it doesn’t just say what it means. Others are repelled by the strangeness of someone else’s life and mind, the raw inwardness of a lyric poem. “It’s ICKY,” exclaims one of the resistant ones, rolling her eyes.

In the 30 years since I taught my first undergraduates, I have come to accept this reality of the human spirit: To imagine is difficult. It takes courage — encouragement; it takes opportunities carefully constructed (by me or by the fates). Then something magic happens: A key turns in a lock, eyebrows ascend on foreheads — and a new world is glimpsed, a 3-D moment that dazzles. (That’s why one stays in this teaching business.) But there’s no guarantee. What you do is lay it before them ... and wait.

I’m convinced that what teachers are doing, at the level that counts, is not merely delivering knowledge or skills. Secretly, beneath the much-insisted details of biology or poli-sci or poetry, we are awakening the imagination. That big world.

You should see the “Ah!” when a student catches Hopkins’ vision of the god that enkindles even a worn and sullied nature. You should see the tenderness of a suburban kid reliving the epic suffering of a Blackfeet life through a James Welch novel. It’s amazing. A kind of grace.


Imagination is a matter of life and death. It’s not just a liberal-arts nicety. If we move forward in our lives (or fail to) it is mostly according to what we can envision. It’s true for individuals. It’s true for nations, too.

One way to understand our Iraq war, with its terrible costs, is that it happened partly because war-making was the only compelling thing the governing party could imagine doing with the vast wealth and human resources of our nation. If not war, then ... well, just send the money back. “The American people know best what to do with their own money.” Tax cuts. Cuts to health services, to environmental regulation and remediation, to student loans, the poor, even medical research. None of it apparently really worth doing.

The immediate financial cost of this war, through 2007, is about $400 billion. Here’s a thought-exercise: What could we have done with that very same money — had we cared to?

Here in Oregon, our share is about $3.7 billion. With that amount, we could provide health care for 791,185 people (more than a quarter of our small state). Or pay for 64,249 elementary school teachers or 78,277 police officers. Build 387 elementary schools. Hire 61,433 port container inspectors. Neighboring Washington would have enough to take out all four salmon-killing Snake River dams, and redevelop those communities for 10 years to boot! I’m not making this up — I’m cribbing most of it from a Web site you might like to visit: National Priorities Project. Click and see what your state might have had for its money.

Next, imagine a candidate having proposed any of these as national priorities in the 2000 presidential campaign. Snorts of derision and disbelief — we can’t afford that!

Of course we can’t. Unless we decide we can.


Such a vision predicates an imaginative leap: that we are, after all, fundamentally connected to each other — that my fate and happiness are not private matters only, but a shared project. A tax cut takes no imagination to see: It’s a few more bucks in your pocket. But seeing one’s ownership in a community, one’s own face in someone else’s child, that takes imagination. It’s an uphill battle in a culture that celebrates a mythic and bellicose individualism.

But we do have some cultural resources to draw on. Go to a church and try reading aloud: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus spent a lot of time contradicting that instinctive individualism. Maybe some of us could be persuaded to listen.

Imagine — combining our resources to relieve suffering and to open up dead-ends of poverty and hopelessness. Imagine knowing that our fate is each other.

Imagine — knowing that our fate also swims with the salmon and grows with the trees.

Imagine living beyond yourself — finding that thing you’re good at and in love with, even if it doesn’t pay so well. That would be like coming back to life, wouldn’t it? It would be like grace.


David Oates is the author of City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary. He can be reached at [email protected]