Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Question of Balance

Once a cycle (every six days) all the teachers of sophomore English at my school get together for an hour to compare notes. Today we started a discussion in which we were making selections for common readings—essays, stories, and poems—for next year, to supplement the two major texts for the year (The Merchant of Venice semester one, and The Poisonwood Bible semester two).

There is one sequence of readings that has evolved over the last few years which explore the question of "What is our responsibility toward those who are less fortunate than us?" It's a sequence which has resonances with the mission of our school, which our President, Jim Scott, likes to describe as "a private school with a public purpose," and with the the themes of the sophomore critical thinking course, which asks students to give some thought to where they stand in relation to others who are different from them, and what strategies might best ensure that we arrive at something like mutual understanding and respect with those people. (Thus Merchant and Poisonwood as anchor texts.)

The sequence starts with "The Singer Solution to World Poverty", an essay published in the New York Times Magazine in 1999 in which Peter Singer, explores in a very clear, pointed, and thought-provoking way the range of possibilities all the way from selling children to get money to buy consumer products (at one extreme) to giving away every cent that you do not spend on necessities (on the other.) The gist of his argument is that most of us do not give enough.

Second in the sequence is Ian Parker's 2004 New Yorker article "The Gift," which profiles millionaire entrepreneur Zell Kravinsky, who gave away essentially all of his money (which generated much praise and respect), and then, feeling that he had done enough, decided to donate a kidney as well (which generated a great deal of consternation and controversy). The third article, also from the New Yorker, is Michael Specter's "What Money Can Buy," an account of how and why Bill and Melinda Gates decided to attempt to eliminate malaria in Africa. And the last is Connie Bruck's recent New Yorker article "Milllions for Millions," which profiles Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and the emerging world of micocredit.

The issue that came up today, and which I would like to frame here in the hopes of generating some response from any of you who may want to weigh in, was brought up by a colleague I will call Mark (which might even be his actual name), who wondered out loud whether this particular sequence was biased, insofar as every article seems to be suggesting that we need to do SOMETHING, and we didn't really have any articulate exponents of the position that we in fact owe nothing at all to anybody. I think I understand I understand the logic of the question, but felt at the time, and said at the time, that a) I don't think that the argument that we are independent agents engaged in a free-for-all to climb over each other to the top is intellectually or morally defensible, b) even if there were available essays (if you are aware of any, please let me know) that were able make a clear and compelling case for unenlightened self-interest, I don't think it's my responsibility as a teacher to include them merely for the sake of balance, any more than I think it's my responsibility as a teacher to teach the "theory" of intelligent design alongside the "theory" of evolution for the sake of balance.

In a recent post on habits of mind I was arguing that part of my teacherly duty as I understand is to try to help students learn to be more tolerant, more openminded, more compassionate than they would have been if they had not crossed my path. I therefore have chosen readings that ask students to think about the extent to which they are willing to engage themselves in helping support the lives of others around them. Some of the students are in fact unmoved by these readings. They choose, at least in the short term, not to act. But, as I point out to them, to choose not to act is in fact to act. You become the person you are by virtue of the choices you make. Or don't make. The question is, what kind of person do you want to be?

Rachel, in The Poisonwood Bible, closes out her final monologue by saying, "If there's ugly things going on out there, well, you put a good stout lock on your door and check it twice before you go to sleep. You focus on getting your own one little place set up perfect, as I have done, and you'll see. Other people's worries do not necessarily have to drag you down."

I understand her position. I just don't respect it, and I certainly don't feel that I should be encouraging my students to respect it by offering it or defending it as one (equal) alternative on a continuum of value-neutral choices.

So, gentle reader, the floor is open for your comments. Should we "balance" our readings? Or should we proceed with a presentation of alternatives that does in fact suggest an agenda, or at least a range of choices within a pre-accepted, if not pre-digested, range of limits?

(Image of Attila the Hun via


bluedevil said...

the best example I can think of offhand that represents the independent mover view is the ayn rand-ian / "objectivist" writings. it is a fair point that readings might benefit from being "balanced" -- in the same way that a pure neoclassical economics education takes on a much different shape if it is interspersed with discussions about behavioral finance, microfinance, philanthropy, etc. the example of evolution vs intelligent design is I think an unfair example: creation of a spurious, non-fact-based "theory" to backfill in support of religious beliefs is a much different story than a range of views about whether / how much of one's resources should be outwardly rather than personally directed. I suppose it depends upon one's view of the role of the teacher is to guide the views of a class (gently or explicitly) or simply to present a (relevant) range and let them explore. which seems like a much larger topic, so I'll stick to the narrower question from the post

I'm sure there are many examples extant at the other ("rachel") end of the political spectrum, but the most obvious one I can think of is the objectivist approach. it also has the class benefit of inspiring strong emotions: people seem to either love or hate the basic philosophy that pursuit of self-interest and pure rationality is the only way humankind progresses. my own view is that reading the whole of atlas shrugged is like being beaten repeatedly (every chapter) with the same blunt cast-iron instrument, so perhaps the famous john galt speech (or an excerpt thereof) would be enough to provide the flavor of the argument. I am paraphrasing so am sure there is a greater volume of more accurate and comprehensive material out there ( just to be clear: I have only a mild sympathy to this view (unlike alan greenspan, for example), but it might provide an interesting, and equally exaggeratedly funhouse-style, mirror to peter singer

Bruce Schauble said...

Okay, I've check out the John Galt speech and have some ideas about how I might be able to use or respond to that, although I've got to say it gets right underneath my aspirations to objectivity and gets right to the part of my brain that Bill Bryson talks about in The Thunderbolt Kid, where he attributes to himself at a certain age the magical ability to incinerate those who have run afoul of him. John Galt, here's what I've got to say to you....


bluedevil said...

agreed: john galt, the living paradigm, would be no fun to sit next to on a long airline flight. but in surveys of "the most meaningful book you have ever read" atlas shrugged typically clocks into the top 3 with the bible and some recent bestselling (usually self-help) book. which says a lot about america, and none of it that positive, but the basic theory clearly resonates and for every peter singer there is therefore more than one aspiring john galt (I knew a girl named galt, for that reason). so for a reading on the other end of the spectrum, it is a starting point. reality, as always, lies somewhere in between . . .