Object Lessons

My post about the cyclotron case – “The Other End of the Beam” – has made me wonder whether I could build a course in practical ethics, or perhaps just the introductory segment of a course, around a single, physical object.

I’d come across a brief account of the idea of an object lesson, which is attributed to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educational theorist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in a recent overview of the philosophy of education by Nel Noddings.

I’ll need to go back and look at her account, and I’ll need to dig into the history of it, but the basic idea is to allow students to learn from interacting directly with a particular object. Especially notable is that the technique was often used for moral instruction, often in a religious context.

That original meaning of the term, object lesson, has been obscured: in common usage, it refers generally to an experience from which someone learns something.

I’d like to restore the core idea of interacting with an object, in imagination if not in direct experience, to give students practical experience using one or another skill of ethical inquiry.

(On the difference between moral education and ethics education, I should have much more to say by and by.)

The cyclotron case is an example: have students consider the artifact itself, in all its complexity, caught up as it is in a web of social, natural and technical systems, and to imagine all the uses to which it might be put, all the ways in which people with hopes and projects of their own might interact with it, all the ways in which it might succeed or fail by one or another standard.

Have them imagine being a patient, or a nurse, or a technician, or a construction worker, or a public official, anyone whose path might intersect with the object in question, and what mark it might leave on them.

I might also consider using this approach in a course on environmental ethics, giving students space and tools to explore the environmental setting and implications of ordinary objects – a cup of coffee, a suburban house, an automobile – with a special focus on systems and on scale.

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