English Class, Ethics Class?
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?
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.
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).
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?
"... 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"
After the "Great Relearning"
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.
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.
How 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?
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.