English Class, Ethics Class?

Jul 14, 2009
What I'm good at

Part I

Think about it. Should English Class, where we read, analyze and think critically about select literary texts also be the grounds where ethics is discussed?


Uploaded on July 20, 2006
by justinbaeder

In my first year of teaching, I pushed to teach William Golding's The Lord of the Flies to my freshmen students. My mentor responded by telling me that The Lord of the Flies is usually taught in the 12th grade as part of an ethics unit. I remained steadfast in my pursuit to teach Golding's novel to my ninth graders and I did but the idea of using English class as an ethics class follows me.

 What do you guys think? Think of some your favorite literature as well as some of the literature we assign our students to read.


Part II

Jay Gatsby was a man who pursued a married woman. How is this ethically right? How is this moral? Gatsby was well aware that his "true love" Daisy was already married to Tom Buchanan whom she met while Gatsby was off in Europe during The Great War (World War I).

The Great Gatsby page 1

 Uploaded on January 13, 2005
by emdot


 John Proctor in The Crucible is portrayed as an honest man and yet he had an affair with Abigail Williams, a teenager while married to another woman with whom he had children with. Was he so driven by the pursuit of living honestly and truthfully that he was too blind to question the ethical behavior of his affair?

Was Brutus so driven in his pursuit of what's best for Rome that he was unaware of the ethical questioning of choosing to willingly murder another man?

What about Macbeth when he murders King Duncan and then his BEST FRIEND?! How is deciding to have your best friend be killed in cold blood ever ethical?

Macbeth TreeWhat does all this mean? We as educators have a conscience, which means that each of our students must have an equally righteous conscience. Right? 


Uploaded on February 11, 2007
by Number Six (bill lapp)





"... today's young people live in a moral haze. Ask one of them if there are such things as "right" and "wrong," and suddenly you are confronted with a confused, tongue-tied, nervous, and insecure individual. The same person who works weekends for Meals on Wheels, who volunteers for a suicide prevention hotline or a domestic violence shelter, might tell you, "Well, there really is no such thing as right or wrong. It's kind of like whatever works best for the individual. Each person has to work it out for himself." The trouble is that this kind of answer, which is so common as to be typical, is no better than the moral philosophy of a sociopath ( Sommers, Christina Hoff. "Studying Classic Literature Can Teach Students Ethics." Current Controversies: Ethics.  Brenda Stalcup. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. New York Public Library. 14 July 2009  <http://find.galenet.com/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS>.)."

According to Ms. Christina Hoff Sommers, young people better known as our kids are confused (which is to be expected) and are unable to distinguish right from wrong, which now makes me question their sense of ethics. Do they know it is offensive to use profanity in a classroom discussion? Do they know it is offensive when they openly pass gas in class (this was an ongoing problem in my class)? Do they know that touching other students maybe construed in such a way that it is offensive to the student being touched? Do they know it is offensive when they use racial and gender slurs aloud?

When I was forced to deal with such situations, the students involved were absolutely, totally unaware of their infractions. They saw nothing wrong with using profanity or making lewd comments in a class discussion. They saw nothing wrong with being flatulent in the class and then proudly admitting to it. They were unable to see how touching another student without permission, regardless of the intent, can be viewed as some form of sexual harassment. And again, students saw nothing wrong with openly using racial and gender slurs as reactionary devices in class.

Ms. Sommers in her article touches base on the hippie culture of the 1960's out in San Francisco, CA where "a group of hippies living in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco decided that hygiene was a middle-class hang-up they could do without. So, they decided to live without it. Baths and showers, while not actually banned, were frowned upon (Sommers, Christina Hoff. "Studying Classic Literature Can Teach Students Ethics." Current Controversies: Ethics.  Brenda Stalcup. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. New York Public Library. 15 July 2009 <http://find.galenet.com/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS>.)." Eventually what happened according to Tom Wolfe's observation was that the hippies lack of hygiene and cleanliness forced them to seek help from free health clinics which then enlightened them to the benefits of good hygiene. Wolfe called this the "Great Relearning."

Before the "Great Relearning"


   Uploaded on September 30, 2008
by lucyfrench123














After the "Great Relearning"


 Uploaded on July 15, 2008
by di_the_huntress


Have our students abandoned ethics and a sense of morality? I hope not but sometimes it seems like they have. Ideally, it would be great if they did NOT have to go through a process that would be their own "Great Relearning" except instead of hygiene they would relearn how to be ethical and moral in given number of situations.





Part III

It's the job of the parents to teach them right from wrong. Right? Maybe but, let's face it, our students spend the majority of their waking hours in school with us the teachers. So shouldn't we teach the kids how to be ethical and moral even if we're not their parents? Is it unethical if we choose not to do so? Is it immoral? I am only an English teacher. It's about literature and avoiding run-on sentences for me. 

In Part II, I mentioned numerous situations from traditional classroom literature where the concepts of ethics and morality comes into play. So why not? Why not approach the literature assigned and read in our classrooms with an ethical and moral approach?

Let's take The Great Gatsby as an example. Jay Gatsby pursues Daisy Buchanan who is already married to Tom Buchanan. Furthermore, Daisy and Tom have a child already. Gatsby, based on this, is unethical and immoral because he is knowingly and willingly pursuing a woman who is no longer available. But who decides that Gatsby is being unethical and immoral? Tom is having an affair with a woman named Myrtle and it is revealed in the pages of the novel that since their marriage Tom has had multiple affairs with multiple women. Does this make Gatsby's actions okay? Do they make Gatsby an ethical and moral person if he is dealing with someone similar to him? Let's not forget that Daisy, willingly, accepts Gatsby's advances and begins to romantically communicate with Gatsby while her husband Tom goes off and "plays" with Myrtle Wilson.

This love triangle/square involving Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle is a solid scenario where we, the teachers, can address the concepts of ethics and morality. If everyone in the scenario is misbehaving and being unethical and immoral then wouldn't it be wrong to be ethical and moral? If the mob rules then is it not right?

Another example, is John Proctor from Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Proctor is respected by his fellow townspeople. He remains so even after his affair with Abigail Williams is revealed and exposed. The man has sinned which means that proctor has been unethical and immoral because he was already married and broke the trust that exists with his wife. He lied and went to bed with another woman. Despite this Proctor remains as a spokesman of sorts for truth and moral standing especially at the conclusion of the play. Why? 

Again, The Crucible and its protagonist can be discussed in an ethical and moral way. Does admitting to misbehavior right the wrong? Does exposing his affair absolve Proctor and allows him to keep the respect he receives from the townspeople? Let's not forget that some of the townspeople went about accusing others of being witches for economical and property gains so again, if the majority is delving in unethical and immoral behavior is it wrong to behave in the opposite way?

"Et tu Brute?"

Brutus, a man who believed in the greatness of Rome helped murder Caesar who he believed (or was led to believe) who would hinder Rome's reach for greatness. Is it acceptable to murder someone if you believe they will cause some kind of harm? Where does assuming or believeing become fact? Brutus's decision to help assasinate Caesar, in some way can be viewed as why the greatness of Rome did not last for all of eternity. Did Brutus consider the ethical and moral content of his decision and actions? Let's not forget that Shakespeare presents Brutus as the tragic protagonist of the play.

Macbeth LogosHow about Mister Medieval Scarface? Who? I mean Macbeth. The man shows his gratitude to King Duncan for receiving the title Thane of Cawdor by murdering him in his sleep. Why? Because some questionable women told Macbeth that he would be king one day.

I've learned from my students that the film Scarface is perfect because it shows a man doing whatever it takes to be successful. I usually nod and then wonder should I give everyone a 90 or higher if it means I'll be looked at as being successful? Was Macbeth's rationale behind Duncan's murder that? That he has, he must, kill Duncan in order to be successful? Is that how our students view being ethical and moral? If it means you being successful then it is okay? 

These four literary texts bring up many concerns dealing with being ethical and doing what is moral. The fact is just about every literary text taught in a classroom deals with ethics and morality. As educators it is our job to educate our students on how to read, write, analyze, think critically and distinguish right from wrong. I always encourage students to put themselves in the shoes of these literary characters. Would you do the same things they do? Would we follow the same path the literary characters follow as revealed in the pages?

Part IV

I know I've thrown a lot here in this thread but this is something to consider. Are we, the educators, being ethical and moral if we choose not enlighten our students to their "misbehavior?" Are we? Is this image our future? It doesn't have to come to this if we ALL learn to be self-aware, which we should and must.

Uploaded on December 23, 2006
by jurvetson

Ethical? Moral? Our Future?







Good point.  Almost every

Submitted by csloan on Tue, 2009-07-14 17:20.

Good point.  Almost every "classic" or contemporary work I teach brings about some kind of ethical discussion.  Huckleberry Finn, 1984, Scarlet Letter, Things Fall Apart.  So ethics doesn't have to be one unit, it could come up throughout the year.

Are not the kids relating

Submitted by educateme5 on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:23.

Are not the kids relating the lessons to what is their lived experience?

Its about you as a teacher

Submitted by educateme5 on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:26.

Its about you as a teacher taking actions to continue our democracy.

I majored in English because

wdhaverstock's picture
Submitted by wdhaverstock on Wed, 2009-07-15 12:40.

I majored in English because of Billy Budd.  That is one of the greatest depictions of good vs. evil in all of literature.  I was interested in the content rather than the archaic style of the story and the content was all about ethics.  Gossip magazines, sleazy as they tend to be, are popular because they are about ethics - salacious ethics but ethics.  (The pictures help.)  English class is the ideal place to discuss ethics and values.  Every gesture and tone of voice we use communicates values and for that reason I think teacher as role model is more important than teacher as dispenser of information / skill.  Tone of voice often makes a deeper impresson than semantic content.

Popular movie director

wdhaverstock's picture
Submitted by wdhaverstock on Wed, 2009-07-15 13:23.

Popular movie director Quinten Tarantino has done a great job of desensitiving our kids, us - everyone.  Tarantino has conditioned us to laugh at graphic violence even though there is nothing remotely funny about real violence.  Pulp Fiction was a giant step backward and we've yet to turn around.  Unfortunately one of our jobs as educators is to attempt to undo the unethical damage that Tarantino has done.

And yet Tarantino is praised

JABenitez180's picture
Submitted by JABenitez180 on Wed, 2009-07-15 13:40.

And yet Tarantino is praised for some the films he has done. Pulp Fiction was nominated for "Best Picture" at numerous award shows. For the most part it lost to Forrest Gump except at the MTV Movie Awards.

Also, I'm guilty of enjoying that film but I never watched it as a child since I had no access to it.

There are many movies that

mwhitehouse's picture
Submitted by mwhitehouse on Wed, 2009-07-15 23:40.

There are many movies that depict violence that I like Pulp Fiction tells an interesting story interestingly.  I think there is a place for violence, sex, love, hatred in movies, on television, in books.  What I don't like is sitting in a theatre at a rated R movie and in comes a mom and a dad and their 4-year-old (or 6-year-old or 10 year-old, you get the picture).  I missed a generation of movies and TV because I could not afford a sitter and it would not have been appropriate to bring my child.  Why do some parents seem unwilling to make this sacrifice?

I have no problem with

wdhaverstock's picture
Submitted by wdhaverstock on Thu, 2009-07-16 10:16.

I have no problem with violence in movies.  In fact, we took our infant child to any movie that we went to because we knew he'd have us to talk to about it.  I have a problem with treating graphic violence as comedy.  There is no doubt that Tarantino is a great film maker but when the morality is skewed, the better the film - the more harm it does.  I see kids laugh all the time at things that are not funny and I think that Tarantino is part of this desentization that is going on.  There are now many Tarantino imitators.  In my mind Tarantino is playing into the hand of the same people who are using ganster rap to desensitive young people.

Tarantino was not the first

EvilArtTeacher's picture
Submitted by EvilArtTeacher on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:19.

Tarantino was not the first to use over the top violence.  Perhaps he just hit the mainstream more then some of the others but Tarantino is a very derivative filmaker who has borrowed heavily from those who have inspired him.

Let us also remember a movie is not real, nor is the voilence it shows.  I hope that people are smart enough to realize that.

 I think many literary

mwhitehouse's picture
Submitted by mwhitehouse on Wed, 2009-07-15 23:57.

 I think many literary choices present opportunities for conversations on ethics.  I remember 9th grade discussions around The Scarlet Letter, Juliuss Caesar and The Great Gatsby.  I believe we discussed whether society had an interest in ostracizing some of its members?  What punishments were acceptable for what crimes?  What is too harsh?  What is hypocritical?  I remember the conversations being heated with most students expressing strong opinions.  It was one of my favorite classes (but then again I like arguing).

I'm not sure the question should be framed as a "should".  The pieces themselves demand these moral questions be confronted.  However, teachers should be careful about how they "steer" the conversation.

I believe Social Studies also offers opportunities for these types of conversations.  


I know you have not read the Potter series but I came across this:

"The Harry Potter series may be located in an alternative fantasy world but they address serious moral questions about the nature of trust, loyalty, integrity - and the need to make a stand against evil.  Through the series, Harry Potter has to learn what it means to be a force for good against the dark arts of Lord Voldemort."  http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Story?id=8081011&page=3



    " know I've thrown a

Submitted by educateme5 on Thu, 2009-07-16 06:57.



" know I've thrown a lot here in this thread but this is something to consider. Are we, the educators, being ethical and moral if we choose not enlighten our students to their "misbehavior?" Are we? Is this image our future? It doesn't have to come to this if we ALL learn to be self-aware, which we should and must." Jurvetson, 2009

Indeed we need to be self-aware--mindful- because our commitment, prejudices, biases, etc are unconsciously expressed in our words, and our actions. A method to analyze research data is content analysis. Content analysis looks for meaning in phrases, frequently used words in artifact--writings, media, words, etc. So an action research to undertake is to look at each others work and see if you could identify themes that reveal anything about the writer.

Excellent work that follows

Submitted by educateme5 on Thu, 2009-07-16 07:00.

Excellent work that follows the outline.

I wish I could have conformed to the requirements, but I was informed that I did not have to. Your work expresses your dedication to the profession and to your students.


It is impossilbe to teach

EvilArtTeacher's picture
Submitted by EvilArtTeacher on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:22.

It is impossilbe to teach kids proper ethics along with everything else, especially when they see examples of bad behavior and choices all around them.  Cheating is a part of life now.  People cheat on partners on tv, athletes cheat in all levels of sport, video games are full of cheats to make it easier for the users.  The world revolves around the idea that the ends justify the means.

They don't even know how to

JABenitez180's picture
Submitted by JABenitez180 on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:45.

They don't even know how to cheat well. I feel that cheating was an art form when I was in high school. No effort whatsoever anymore on their behalf.

I dont know, I think our

EvilArtTeacher's picture
Submitted by EvilArtTeacher on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:41.

I dont know, I think our teachers were just as aware as we are now.  I guess they just got sick of correcting us.

Great questions to pose to

Submitted by Feliciag on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:22.

Great questions to pose to students about "classical" literature.  These are the types of questions that make some literature classic.  Why else would anyone want to read a novel written in and about the 1920s?

It's the central question for us as teachers - what are we teaching?  Is it the ideas presented in the reading or learning the vocabulary, the literary devices, the grammar?


"In an environment where

livesacrifice's picture
Submitted by livesacrifice on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:26.

"In an environment where everyone is doing wrong, are you wrong when you do right?"  That is a fabulous line Julio!  I think you are on to a wonderful approach to combating the decay of ethical living in modern society and glad that you are following a path that you feel is right.  Look forward to hearing how this next year goes as you journey down this endeavor!  :)

-- Amanda Kay

Julio!  Great presentation

CHimmel2's picture
Submitted by CHimmel2 on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:26.

Julio!  Great presentation and an intriguing approach to Ethics-CRUCIAL!

This is a great discussion.

CharlieTeachHayground's picture
Submitted by CharlieTeachHay... on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:26.

This is a great discussion. I like the way you use images. It lends a professionalism to the post. When you indicate that we as teachers are responsible for  teaching right and wrong, I wonder who is really qualified to do this. I've never taken an ethics class, but I would imagine that if one had any real value it would  draw on the students own perceptions of right and wrong. I think it would make a great class. You may want to get in some non white male writers in their. Check our Bodega Dreams by enesto quinones. it's gatsby in high school in spanish harlem. Or  The Lovely Bones by alice seibold, the future of high school novels.

Bodega Dreams is a good

JABenitez180's picture
Submitted by JABenitez180 on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:46.

Bodega Dreams is a good read. Quinonez other book, Chango's Fire deals with gentrification in Spanish Harlem and again brings up conflicts dealing with ethics and morality. Is it okay to commit arson if the goal is to provide a better home/life for your parents?

English class and every

klevy's picture
Submitted by klevy on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:27.

English class and every class could be teaching ethics.  Students don't know what is right and what is wrong.  Even if  they know what is right or wrong, they might not follow through.  The dominant culture is cut-throat, racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, etc.so we have to fight all that media and government that supports the ideology.   We also have to show examples about how to speak up and not stay silent.

Karen Levy, Library Media Specialist Columbus Campus H.S. 925 Astor Avenue Bronx, N.Y. 10469

Great food for thought,

jryanw12's picture
Submitted by jryanw12 on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:28.

Great food for thought, Julio.

I am constantly trying to teach ethics in my math class.  Sometimes so much, that they get more ethics than they do math.  But, anyhow, I totally agree with your viewpoint that students should be taught ethics by their teachers.

I can't tell you how many

Susan Harts's picture
Submitted by Susan Harts on Thu, 2009-07-16 11:33.

I can't tell you how many times my English class has become an ethics class throughout the year.

Much of what I thought parents should teach their kids are NOT taught, like not taking what is not yours, etc.

It is now in our (the teachers' ) court to instill what we think are our values.