Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part V

In this class we view the film Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth. The film is an interview with Alfons Heck, who describes his childhood experiences as a member of the Hitler Youth and his rise to prominence as a leader in the organization, and then his shame and revulsion as he realized after the war the full extent of the horror to which he had contributed.

Heck discusses the indoctrination he underwent as a child, describing hearing Hitler over the radio from the age of 5 and noting that "we swallowed our daily dose of nationalistic instruction as naturally as our morning milk." He speaks candidly about the Jewish neighbors and friends he had known and liked as a child, and his eventual "total indifference to their fate" as he watched them being deported, after years of accepting the propaganda taught in school and elsewhere that characterized all Jewish people as enemies of Germany.

In our small groups and the larger discussion that follows, we talk about the forces that attracted children to the Hitler Youth and whether there are group pressures similar to those of the Hitler Youth in today's society. We discuss responsibility and Heck's statement that, as a contributor to the Nazi effort, he too was "guilty of the crime of mass murder." Is he guilty of mass murder when, as one student put it, he "had been taught by everyone in his life since he was a little boy that fighting for Germany and getting rid of all Germany's Jews was the right thing to do?"

One student this week commented that since everyone was taught that the Jewish people were inferior, they were not wrong to act in accordance with that belief. But not all people did so. What about the people who did question the Nazi doctrine? We analyzed whether the children who joined the Hitler Youth were making a choice, or whether there was no meaningful choice within the context of their lives at the time.

We also spent a long time examining the question of forgiveness, whether Heck should forgive himself and what such forgiveness would mean. Does forgiveness entail forgetting? Exoneration? One student noted that Heck had spent much of his life in a kind of atonement for his actions as a member of the Hitler Youth. Does this then entitle him to forgiveness? From himself? From others?

Friday, April 24, 2009


The picture book Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon, is a wonderful book for inspiring discussions about what makes something what it is and about friendship. It tells the story of a young fruit bat who becomes separated from her mother and lands in a nest of baby birds, becoming an adoptive member of the bird family. The baby bat learns to act like a baby bird and struggles to accommodate herself to the family, but she never completely fits in. Eventually she is able to regain her identity as a bat, and she and her bird friends wonder together about friendship and being alike and different at the same time.

The following are some questions that can be used to discuss this story in a classroom or other group setting or just with your own children:

Duck a duck?
Cat a cat?
Human being a human being?
Animal an animal?
Bird a bird?
Smile a smile?
Feeling a feeling?
Thought a thought?

A duck catch mice?
A bat write a letter?
A television eat grass?
A person fly?
A dog purr?
A teddy bear talk?
A person turn into a lion?
A painter plant a garden?
A child drive a car?
A doctor play the piano?
A book talk to you?

What makes a child become an adult?
Is an adult the same person he or she was as a child?
Can an animal ever become a person?

Can you be friends with any of the following?
The moon.
A car.
A stone.
A pair of shoes.
A book.
A movie.
A cat.
A plant.
A house.
A piece of land.
An idea.
A dream.
A painting.
A tree.
A parent.

If someone is a friend, is the following true?
I spend time with him or her a lot.
I talk to him or her a lot.
We share thoughts with each other.
We share feelings with each other.
I like him or her.
I want to be near him or her.
We help each other.
The person thinks that I am his or her friend.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part IV

Why do people obey authority even when they sense that what they're doing is wrong? Central to the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur was people's tendencies to conform to the situations in which they find themselves.

In this class we watch a clip from the film Obedience, which documents the Milgram experiments. In the 1960s Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, decided to create an experiment to see how far people would go in situations in which they are ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. Milgram wanted to see when a person would refuse to obey the experimenter.

The subjects of these experiments were told that the experiments were testing how learning is affected by punishment. Labeled the “teacher,” the subject watched as the “learner” (who, unknown to the "teacher," was part of Milgram's team) was strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to each wrist. The “learner” was then told to memorize word pairs for a test and warned that wrong answers would result in electric shocks. Each teacher was taken to a separate room and seated before a “shock generator” with switches ranging from 15 volts labeled “slight shock” to 450 volts labeled “danger – severe shock.” Each “teacher” was told to administer a “shock” for each wrong answer, with shocks increasing by fifteen volts every time the “learner” responded incorrectly. The shocks were not real, but the “teachers” thought they were.

Before the experiment began, Milgram imagined that most volunteer subjects would refuse to give electric shocks of more than 150 volts, the point at which the learner starts to yell and complain of heart pain. A group of psychologists and psychiatrists predicted that slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the volunteers (so 1 out of 1,000 people) would administer all 450 volts. However, more than 80% of people continued to administer shocks after reaching 150 volts, and more than 50% of the “teachers” gave the full 450 volts!

This film is always a surprise for most of the students. They are surprised by the numbers of people who obey the experimenter, even when it is clear that the subjects are troubled by what they are doing. We had small group discussions for about 20 minutes after the film, and then came back together for a large group discussion. The students were interested in examining the question of responsibility, and what responsibility the person who is inflicting the pain bears versus the responsibility of the person ordering the acts. They quickly made the connection to the Holocaust and all of the people who did not defy the edicts of the Hitler and the Nazis. We talked about whether a person is ever morally obligated to defy authority, and what it is about human beings that results in such widespread conformity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part III

When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in Iowa, decided to implement an exercise in her classroom to help her students understand racism and discrimination. She divided the class into students with brown eyes and students with blue eyes, and spent one day discriminating against the brown-eyed students and the next discriminating against the blue-eyed students. In 1970, when she did this exercise for the third year, it was filmed by PBS. In the film A Class Divided, the students in the 1970 film reunite 14 years later to watch the film and discuss the effect of the exercise on their lives.

Watching the exercise unfold in the third grade class in 1970, it is striking how quickly the students who are labeled as the “superior group” for the day take to discriminating against their peers. In a very short time, Jane Elliott created an enormous gulf in her class. The exercise powerfully demonstrates the effect of the “us and them” mentality on a community.

This week is the first class in the “Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust” unit in which the community volunteers who have been recruited and trained for this unit participate. The film is always compelling for the students. After viewing it, we break up into nine small groups, each with 4 or 5 students and an adult , and spend about a half hour discussing the features of the film that surprised the students, whether it is natural for human beings to discriminate and when that is acceptable and when it isn’t, and the nature of community. Then the whole group comes back together and we talk for another 20 minutes or so about the film and the students’ reactions to it.

The students generally are surprised by how quickly the third graders start to discriminate, even against children who had been their closest friends the previous hour. One student said that she thought that we should do this exercise in their grade. When I asked the group what they thought about the idea, some thought it would be less effective with older students because, one student contended, “the older you get the less influenced you are by what your teachers tell you.” Many of the students, though, thought that this could be very successful in the 8th grade. Several students suggested that the biggest challenge would be getting some of the students’ parents to permit this to take place.

“Yeah, I was really surprised that this teacher could do this exercise year after year and no parent objected!” remarked one student. “I don’t think that would happen today.”

We talked for a little while about the differences in the way parents interact with the school system today, as opposed to almost forty years ago. Then one of the students commented, “I don’t think there’s really any racism in our school. I’m not sure we would need this exercise.”

“I disagree. I think there’s plenty of racism here. All you need to do is go out in the hall and listen,” responded another student.

“I think that there are all kinds of discrimination,” reflected a student. “People get into groups here and judge each other. Like in the lunchroom, where you sit and who you sit with makes a difference.”

Reflecting about what constitutes discrimination and whether it is always wrong, whether communities are necessarily exclusive, and how easily people can accept a situation that puts them into a position of superiority over others, starts the students thinking about how an event like the Holocaust could happen. As part of this unit, the students are reading Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, a novel about a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Next week we will examine further questions about the forces the influence people’s moral choices, looking at the nature of conformity and obedience to authority.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust -- Blog Series Part II

This morning I taught the second class of the "Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust" unit to two eighth grade classes. This class is an introduction to moral philosophy, a way to give the students some background before we launch into the issues raised by the Holocaust. We began by talking about Plato's Ring of Gyges story. I asked the class what they would do if they had a ring that allowed them to become invisible, and whether they thought Plato was right that there would be no difference between what a morally good person would do and what a person who was not morally good would do.

Most of the students seemed to think that although many people might do things they wouldn't do otherwise if they knew there would be no consequences, they thought that there would be differences among what people would do. One student noted that she would never kill anyone, no matter what, because her conscience wouldn't let her and she knew if she did, she'd be wracked with guilt for the rest of her life. Other students mentioned rules against killing and stealing, for example, that were so ingrained into their thinking that they couldn't imagine violating those rules.

I gave the students a problem to consider: You have a friend and you know this friend has been robbing houses and using the money for himself. You are worried about him, feel badly about the people from whom he has stolen, and you are trying to decide what to do. Should you tell someone?

The students felt very strongly about this scenario, in widely varied ways. One student said that no matter what, “you don’t rat out your friends.” Another student argued that you also have some obligation to help the people being robbed, because what would the community be like if no one helped other people? Others thought that you needed to look at what would happen if you told: your friend would end up in juvenile prison, your friendship would be over, and other students would dislike you for telling on your friend, versus people’s homes no longer being robbed and your feelings of feel relief about that.

I pointed out to them that they were using several perspectives that philosophers talk about when analyzing moral issues. Most of the time, we tend to look at moral questions through a particular lens, whether it be rules-based, an examination of the likely consequences of our moral choices, our intuition or conscience telling us what is right, etc. What can be helpful about moral philosophy is that it can help us to widen the lens through which we view moral problems, and help us to make better moral decisions.

“But you can’t judge someone else’s moral choice!” one student declared. “Everyone has the right to make their own decisions, and you can’t really say that those decisions are good or bad.”

“But aren’t some decisions better than others?” I asked. “For example, if I was walking by a pond with water no deeper than my waist, and I saw a toddler drowning, and I decided not to wade in and lift the child out of the water because I didn’t want to get my jeans wet, wouldn’t you be correct in saying I made a poor moral decision?”

“No!” the student insisted. “I could say you did a nice thing if you saved the child, but I couldn’t say you were obligated to do that.”

This resulted in a very lively discussion about what moral obligations we might have, and where they come from, and if they always apply. Do we have obligations to help other people? We talked about bullying in the hallways and whether students have an obligation to intervene, and whether being a bystander is morally acceptable. What is the right balance between our obligations to ourselves and our obligations to others?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Philosophy? It's so difficult!

Created by 5th grade students
Methow Valley Elementary School
Winthrop, Washington

I was reflecting this morning about a conversation I had last week, in which I was asked by an acquaintance about my work. Her response to what I do was, "Philosophy? I took one philosophy class in college, but it was so difficult!" I've been thinking about this because it is so typical of the response I get when I tell people what I do, but it is not at all the response my pre-college students have, and it is not the response I think they will ever have.

Most of the K-12 students I've worked with are really comfortable with philosophy after several classes (not all of the students take to it, of course, but I don't think any of them feel intimidated by the discipline). I think back to my introduction to philosophy. I was lucky enough, in a public high school, to have the opportunity to take a philosophy class, and it is what inspired me to study philosophy in college. And after all my years of studying philosophy, the foundational affection I have for the discipline is still rooted, I think, in that high school class and its emphasis on exploring the big mysteries of life with which philosophy began.

I guess this is one of the main reasons I think it matters that students get introduced to philosophy earlier in life than college. College philosophy classes are taught in a certain way, and the emphasis on the history of philosophy and learning the arguments philosophers make in support of one view or another can be both intimidating and mystifying if you haven't already developed an interest in the questions themselves. Many college students do embrace philosophy after an introductory college class, but many more take one class and that's it, or are never introduced to philosophy at all. My hope is that many of the students I've taught over the years will take philosophy classes in college because the students have been thinking about the questions and have become interested in what philosophers have to say about them!

Friday, April 3, 2009


A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

James Wright

April Birthdays

April 3 Otto Weininger (Austrian, born 1880)
April 5 Thomas Hobbes (British, born 1588)
April 7 Charles Fourier (French, born 1772) and Thomas Hill Green (British, born 1836)
April 8 Edmund Husserl (German, born 1859)
April 10 Hugo Grotius (Dutch, born 1583)
April 12 Clarence Irving Lewis (American, born 1883)
April 14 Moritz Schlick (German, born 1882)
April 21 Max Weber (German, born 1864)
April 22 Immanuel Kant (German, born 1724)
April 26 Marcus Aurelius (Roman, born 121), Thomas Reid (Scottish, born 1710), and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Austrian, born 1889)
April 27 Mary Wollstonecraft (British, born 1759) and Herbert Spencer (British, born 1820)
April 28 Kurt Godel (Austrian-American, born 1906)
April 29 Henri Poincare (French, born 1854)