Wednesday snapshots

February 16,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I was walking with a good friend/neighbor the other day and we spent some time lamenting about the State of Things with Young People today--a favorite topic. She teaches too--although in a different field--so we commiserated about baffling--and sometimes downright disturbing and difficult--student responses to topics even remotely connected to ethics and values. I told her that my students recently read this piece, and we spent some time in class discussing collective guilt and collective responsibility--two tricky concepts, as it turns out. This semester my students were suitably horrified at the thought that so many citizens had witnessed a brutal attack and yet had chosen to do nothing; that even one phone call by one person could have saved Kitty Genovese's life. But, I told my friend and neighbor, when I taught the same piece two semesters ago, I had almost an entire class react the other way. A few students that semester did feel that the 38 who saw murder could perhaps be held responsible for her death, but an overwhelming number did not. The majority, most certainly, did not buy that any guilt at all could be placed on those citizens who chose inaction and apathy over a simple telphone call.

I shared the story with my friend because she was wondering out loud to me about whether or not young people today approach dilemmas and choices--professions and relationships, with an ill-formed (or un-formed, it could be argued) sense of ethical responsibility towards others. I'm not sure. Two semesters ago I might have said yes, but after working through the piece with my students last week it's clear that they were willing and ready to think about responsibility on broader levels. My students this semester, though--especially in that one class--are a particularly well-read and creative bunch; the students from two semesters ago were certainly not. I do think that developing a sense of ethical responsibility is something kids learn by example, and that the more kids read, and the more they practice creative skills, the more they are encouraged to flex those responsibility muscles--reading is the perfect chance for a child to put herself into another person's shoes; to try on different situations for size, to learn empathy and kindness.

Yet another reason why we need to put more money into school programs that encourage reading, and the creative arts, in my opinion.

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I heard a wonderful little story the other day. I don't usually pass on motivational stories--especially since many have been circulating a long time, and most people have come across them at some point, and in different contexts. But it seemed so appropriate given the conversation my neighbor and I had the other day, and because I often get questions from my own students about why, for instance, community service is important, or why should we talk about things like collective responsibility towards others?

"What difference will it make?" They ask, grumbling and jaded.

The story goes like this:

A man was vacationing in a sunny, beautiful beach town. One morning he got up, and headed to the beach for his morning walk. Up ahead he saw a figure by the shore, stooping and straightening, and then casting an arm out towards the sea. The figure up ahead did this over and over again, almost mechanically. The vacationing man wondered to himself what this crazy-seeming person was doing and, as he drew nearer, he saw that along the shore were littered hundreds of starfish, beached by the tide, yet still brightly colored and alive. The stooped figure--an elderly woman--was picking each one up and tossing it back into the sea.

"Why are you doing this?" The vacationing man asked, incredulous.

"So I can save the starfish," she replied. "The sun is up and the tide is going out and they will die here."

The vacationing man laughed out loud. "That's ridiculous! There are too many starfish! What difference will it make?"

The woman paused, and held out her hand to the vacationing man. In it was a beautiful starfish. Then she tossed it deep into the water.

"It will make a difference to that one," she answered, and stooped to pick up another.