Ethics Lesson

A new term begins next week. I’ll be spending some time today going over my syllabi, making sure my new course design is as ready as I can make it.

I’ll have more to say about the new design in the coming weeks, especially as I begin to see its various failure modes, and so begin the next round of revisions and mid-course corrections.

In honor of the new term, I thought I’d post something I wrote over the summer.

I found myself alone at home for a few weeks, while my wife and daughters were traveling. One Sunday evening, I decided to attend a spoken-word open-mic at a nearby coffee shop.

The next Sunday, I put my name on the list and, when called, stood up to do my bit.

I’m not sure it was very good, as spoke-word poetry goes, and I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to my students. It is also something of a historical piece: I don’t lecture any more, so the opening stanza no longer applies, and I’m starting to figure out new answers to the question at the end.

(Hint: It’s not about what I say.)

Anyway, for good or ill, here it is:

Ethics Lesson

I said,
Write this down, it’ll be on the test:
Immanuel Kant’s third formulation of the Categorical Imperative states
that you ought always to treat humanity
whether in yourself or in others
never merely as a means but always
at the same time as an end in itself.
They wrote it in their notebooks – or some of them did –
and for the rest of the hour I talked and joked and cajoled
and asked questions and told stories
until the sound of my own voice was a clanging in my ears
trying to get them to see, to feel in their bones
this essential lesson.

I said,
That’s all I have for you today
see you next Tuesday,
and they closed their notebooks –
my words already fading –
and they went out and did
whatever they wanted.
They played games of power and games of chance
on one another’s bodies and hearts and minds;
they enjoyed all the fruits of being young
and privileged and invulnerable,
their consciences barely even twitching.

He said,
I never meant to do any harm!
He was my student, one of the bright ones,
and I had caught him cheating . . .
in an ethics class.
He was days from graduation,
his future on the line,
and all I wanted was for him to see and feel
the wrong he had done
to himself and to others,
at once selling himself short
and setting himself apart.
But he pushed it away
and he put up walls against it;
he denied responsibility.
He said,
I never meant to do any harm!

He asked,
Are you calling me a racist?
I had just pointed out to my brother that he and I
and others like us
were uniquely privileged –
by birth,
by the color of our skin,
by the professions of our parents,
by the very language that we spoke.
Every valley had been exalted,
the rough places made plain
to ease the passage through the world
of white boys like us,
and it seemed to me we should bow to the truth
that others had been beaten down and shoved aside
so that our feet might meet no obstacle.
But he pushed it away,
and he put up walls against it;
he denied responsibility.
He asked,
Are you calling me a racist?

She said,
White boys don’t get to be victims.
She was my housemate in grad school,
a radical feminist.
I don’t remember what I’d meant to say or should have said,
but what I said was that white boys are also harmed by injustice,
constricted and stunted by the roles we play,
held back from the full humanity we might have
as equals among equals,
and so we have good reason
to join in the righting of wrongs.
And she threw my attempted solidarity back in my face,
and she pushed me away.
She said
White boys don’t get to be victims.
And I knew what she meant,
but I put up walls against it;
and I denied responsibility.
I thought,
I don’t want to be a victim, that’s not the point!
and I thought,
Are you calling me a sexist?
and I thought,
I never meant to do any harm!

So, could someone please tell me,
because clearly I don’t know:
What words do I have to say to my students,
to my brother,
to myself,
to my children,
to make the walls come tumbling down,
to knit this lesson into our bones –
always treat humanity as an end in itself,
never treat a person as a thing,
but lift one another up into freedom,
and never make an exception or excuses for yourself –
until we can see it and feel it and live it
without having to write it in a notebook
or copy it out on a test?

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