Ethics Workshop Series Continues on Vermont Campus

Sep 30th, 2015 | By | Category: Campus News, Fall 2015

Integrating Ethics into High School and Middle School English Class: A Workshop at Bread Loaf Vermont

by Dr. Jim Sabin
 
Dr. Sabin is a Clinical Professor of both Population Medicine and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Ethics Program

June 26, 2015

From among several topics that interested the 26 participants, we decided to focus on concern about their students’ ethical orientation. Participants conceptualized this concern in different ways: limited empathy for others; too much focus on “how do I get to the next level of achievement?”; resume-building; a “what’s in it for me?” orientation; too little kindness towards others; and, diminished love of learning for learning’s sake.

Participants who teach in wealthy communities saw a risk that students could confuse “privilege” with “virtue”—that their opportunities were earned and justified, while less fortunate others “get what they deserved.” Participants who teach in poor communities where students encounter harsh conditions saw a risk that students could see the world as an unkind place requiring a “grab what I can when I can” orientation. The common denominator for both communities was the risk of constricted empathy, an overly self-centered view of the good life, and a relative absence of communitarian values.

We had a robust discussion in which participants described experiences with literary works and characters that got students engaged with ethical reflection. These included: Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn, Curley in Of Mice and Men, the feud between the Montagues & Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, and the flawed characters that permeate The Great Gatsby. Sometimes students identify with the “virtuous” characters, but often they are more engaged by characters like Don Draper in Mad Men and Tony Soprano.

A participant suggested that the key educational opportunity from literature is powerfully expressed by David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement address “This is Water.” If you, like me, haven’t heard the address, I encourage you to follow the link. I’m grateful for the reference. Wallace argues that the most important outcome of a liberal education is understanding at a deep level that the world isn’t about us, and that we have the power to get outside our own heads to attend to more than our own experience and desires.

Close reading of literature can broaden our sense of the human communities we are part of in the way David Foster Wallace urged. The teacher-participants presented many practical suggestions for how to do this. But a participant presented a crucial question: “How do we get beyond just having wishy-washy discussions of values to [something with implications for real life]?” Is there a connection between becoming better readers and writers and becoming better people?

These aren’t questions we could settle in a single workshop. They’re really at the heart of what all of Bread Loaf itself is about. But the sense of the group was that there’s a potential flow from (a) becoming better readers and writers to (b) developing heightened ethical sensitivity to (c) the potential for becoming activists on behalf of our values. I created a visual representation of this sequence below:

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 2.29.23 PM

Potential relationship between English class, character development, and social action

After the 2013 workshop, participants used the workshop and some online follow up as the basis for developing an NCTE presentation in 2014. I’d like to take our discussion further again, if possible. Please let me know if you’re interested in doing that.

2 Comments to “Ethics Workshop Series Continues on Vermont Campus”

  1. Patrick Martin says:

    I would be interested in reengaging in this discussion; it has been on my mind much since the workshop and presentation. I have recently moved from teaching private school to public here in Charleston, South Carolina. Our second Unit of study, “The Struggle for Freedom,” from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Collections” text book has taken my students on a journey for the past month which has included a close reading the text, I Am Malala to writing letters to students in Pakistan to reading periodical articles concerning the local response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the attacks in Paris and currently they are putting the final touches on a Social Justice project. This project will be assessed on the students ability to cite textual evidence from I Am Malala, the periodicals and information gleaned from correspondence with their Pakistani counterparts to inform an audience, of their choosing but outside of this class, about a message that will help draw parallels between young people from different cultures.
    I apologize for that long winded explanation, but I feel that the incorporation of local news, literature, and correspondence has created a space for ethical discussions in research, interpretation of texts and cultural awareness. Likewise, I feel that the purpose driven model, one with an intended audience, has informed the students’ willingness and sense of ownership over their Social Justice Project. I will share some of these privately if you would like to see.
    I look forward to reentering this important conversation, and thank you for asking for input.

  2. Patrick Martin says:

    I would be interested in reengaging in this discussion; it has been on my mind much since the workshop and presentation. I have recently moved from teaching private school to public here in Charleston, South Carolina. Our second Unit of study, “The Struggle for Freedom,” from the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Collections” text book has taken my students on a journey for the past month which has included a close reading the text, I Am Malala to writing letters to students in Pakistan to reading periodical articles concerning the local response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the attacks in Paris and currently they are putting the final touches on a Social Justice project. This project will be assessed on the students ability to cite textual evidence from I Am Malala, the periodicals and information gleaned from correspondence with their Pakistani counterparts to inform an audience, of their choosing but outside of this class, about a message that will help draw parallels between young people from different cultures.
    I apologize for that long winded explanation, but I feel that the incorporation of local news, literature, and correspondence has created a space for ethical discussions in research, interpretation of texts and cultural awareness. Likewise, I feel that the purpose driven model, one with an intended audience, has informed the students’ willingness and sense of ownership over their Social Justice Project. I will share some of these privately if you would like to see.
    I look forward to reentering this important conversation, and thank you for asking for input.

Leave a Comment for Patrick Martin

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