ETHOS

ETHOS

Monday, February 27, 2017

Transcendentalist Theme: Moral Agency

I will post a series of lessons for breaking down the Transcendentalists' ideas into real-world concepts.  "Civil Disobedience" is the piece we read after finishing The Crucible. I believe it is a natural progression; students remember this line from Elizabeth explaining John Proctor: "The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you." We come to understand John has a strong conscience, and by the end of the play ripping up his confession could be seen as an act of civil disobedience. We talk about this. I ask for real world examples; students struggle coming up with them. So, we watch this recreation of Stanley Milgram's experiment to test obedience to authority, and moral agency.

After watching, students are usually horrified that 9 of the 12 "teachers" go through with the entire experiment, delivering 450 volts to the "learner." We talk about who is at fault: the teacher who flips the switch or the professor who tells the teacher to flip the switch. Most students by now see where this is going and recognize that the little judge that sits in your heart takes precedent over the big judge that sits in one of those leather-clad chairs with buttons... who might enforce something like, oh, say, segregation laws. If you're brave you could bring up travel bans... There is usually one student that thinks the professor should be at fault, because the teacher was just doing what they were told to do. Sometimes, from here, we go on to talk about war crimes, Nazism, and just to keep it light, Bug's Life. Why Bug's Life? Well, Hopper has some words of advice for Princess Atta (who, next to Vanellope, is one of the only Disney Princesses I like):

First rule of leadership: "everything is your fault." We go on to reason that we all want to be in charge of our own lives; those of us in positions of power, in charge of the lives of others, should take responsibility for our actions. "We learned this in kindergarten," someone might say. Indeed. So, why is it hard?

For some it may be hard to admit fault; for others maybe they feel like they don't deserve their success. After a bit of speculation we narrow the big scary concept of civil disobedience down to "taking responsibility for your own actions." From there I ask students to find three (rationale: once is random, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern) quotes from "Civil Disobedience" that relate back to moral agency, or as we said, taking responsibility for your actions.

From there we read MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and attempt to pair three more direct quotes with those taken from civil disobedience. Once we do this, I teach students how to write a synthesis/analysis paragraph. Because this can be challenging, I use the following graphic to coach them on how to structure it.

It is important to emphasize that students should choose the pairing of quotes they feel they will be able to explain the best. Here's one we did in class:

Postscript: perhaps the most compelling lines from MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" are "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority... An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."

Modern implications? 

That's up to you. 



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