Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Under "Links of Interest. . . " on this blog, you'll find a poem by W. H. Auden titled "Musee des Beaux Arts." Before class next Tuesday, please post a comment as to how the poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others.


lisa said...

In “Musee des Beaux Arts” W.H Auden illustrates the concept of human empathy by describing various responses to disaster. He begins the poem by introducing the “Old Masters’” position on human suffering; how they understood what suffering is like. As Auden continues and gives accounts of people turning away from the suffering of others he implies that empathy is being diminished over time. Towards the end of the poem he writes:

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Clearly the fictional ploughman bears much less empathy then the aforesaid “Old Masters.
Another idea that Auden presents is the poem is that modern occupations distract people from empathy. The ploughman and the personified ship symbolize figures that have certain obligations to fulfill. And it seems that in order to carry out their duties as a ploughman and ship that they must not respond to disaster.
The poem speaks very well of people’s current empathetic stances. Empathy does seem to diminish upon entering adulthood, when people become preoccupied with what they want to do in life. Being empathetic is nice, but it does not help you move forward. At most, it may motivate you to take certain actions.

Jennifer said...

In W.H. Auden's poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," he comments on the general absence of empathy among people. Unlike the "Old Masters" who understand and contemplate empathy on intellectual and artistic levels, people in general are too absorbed in their own lives to care. Suffering exists, yet many choose to ignore it. Those who aren't affected take for granted their state of peace, or indifference as it were. It is easier for the ploughman to continue on his unaffected path rather than to employ empathy and become ingrained in Icarus' suffering. The poem states, "But for him it was not an important failure," because he was not directly involved in the incident. He had his own agenda, and the world continued to function in its proper way in regards to his own life.

Constants, such as the sun and expensive ship, represent unfeeling monuments immune to human suffering. It is implied that people can, and often do, take on such form. This poem is, sadly, a realistic commentary on the human condition.

If I am correct in the translation, the title suggests that on the exterior, things may seem orderly, calm, and beautiful, as would be seen in a museum, but beneath the water's surface, man is hopeless and drowning.

Tyler said...

Breughel's "Fall of Icarus" quite apparently influenced Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts." The Fall of Icarus, historically, is perfectly explained by Auden in line 10 when he states, "Even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course."
Because of this realization of the unavoidability of human suffering over time, empathy has diminished from the age of the "Old Masters." Even then, Auden notes, the decline of empathy was in place, when "Children...did not specially want it to happen." Instead, they were skating on a pond at the edge of the wood. This set the wheels in motion for such selfish thoughts to be passed down through generations.
But is such selfishness really a bad thing? As Auden notes in his study of "Fall of Icarus," the ploughman and the ship had their duties to fulfill. Even though they undoubtedly noticed Icarus falling from the sky, but they each "had important things to do." Though this presents an extremely numb and detached point of view for such a rarely seen event, it does connect with the fact that exercising empathy constantly often takes one away from the responsibilities at hand.

Marcy said...

“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H Auden portrays the loss of empathy in humanity. It is easy to think of this subject now, when so many of us are desensitized due to the media. It is hard for most people to have empathy for others, unless the event affects someone they personally know. W.H. Auden was contemplating this subject even before media was much of an issue.

Our lives are too busy to stop for someone else. It would take us away from our own lives, and it’s often easier to think that someone else will deal certain problems. This is what both the ploughman and the ships crew do instead of stopping to help Icarus. Children in the poem do not have the same understanding of the human position as the “Old Masters”. The same can still be said about today’s society, and with each generation it is possible we lose a bit more empathy for our fellow man.

Scott Broskie said...

In W.H. Auden's poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," empathy is shown when talking about the old masters. Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another's emotion and feelings. It talks about Old Masters and Brueghel’s Icarus. These images represent the suffering of man and the greed of everyone. People would save themselves before helping someone else. The people are so into themselves that they do not see what is happening next to them such as the miraculous birth, while others are skating on a pond at the edge of the wood showing the lack of caring.

Matthew Conti said...

The poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H Auden tries to open peoples eyes to the lack of empathy people feel to another persons misfortune. It is saying that life goes on no matter what, whether it is good or bad. Bad things happen all the time, but no one really cares about an individual. We as a society have learned not to worry about any ones feeling, but our own. Caring about another can slow you down, so why do it? This is a horrible why of thinking and we need to relearn to care for another’s feeling. By doing this then we can be better, less selfish people and help make this world a little better.

John Purcell said...

Okay, first off, I have to note how some of the text within the poem is linked to advertisements when you scroll your cursor over the word. I can’t imagine anyone would ever be reading this poem and then think, “Yeah, burglars do kick down doors, I think I’ll buy the StrikeMaster II, so a burglar can’t get into my home.” I think the burglars are lacking some serious ethics and empathy. I’ll move past this rant now.

The poem basically seems to be about an event that the picture is also depicting. I read some of the extra text at the bottom that discusses these pieces. How the poem relates to empathy seems to be that everyone is too caught up in their own life that they can’t take time to properly feel for others. Yet, they do seem to acknowledge or know of others suffering, but they don’t have empathy for others. When you are worried about yourself and what you are going to do next it is hard to stop and feel for others. To me, there seems to be humorous tones in this poem, but I think that makes what Auden was trying to say easier to consume. This poem seems to clearly illustrate how many people still feel and act today. I think today we view other’s suffering sometimes as entertainment, though, in the poem everyone seems to ‘turn away.’ Oh, we watch, but I don’t think it is because we feel empathetic — we feel entertained.

Arantza said...

W.H. Auden's poem was a bit confusing at first but then I re-read it and read some comments below it and I understood it more. I really liked the fact that the painting "The Fall of Icarus" was there to go along with it.

Anyway, the poem has to do with people not caring about other people suffering. There is no sympathy or empathy. People seem to be very selfish, they don't care about others, especially their failures, problems, and suffering, which is horrible. But some people in their comments say that this may not be too horrible because it lets you live your life. I guess it can lead to a problem if you are too empathetic because you don't move on from other people's problems, not to say that you can not be concerned with them. At the same time, sometimes there seems to be a lack of empathy. For example, you may be watching the news and hear about someone getting mugged or something. You may not feel anything towards that person, no empathy or even sympathy because that has never happened to you or anyone you know, there are worse things happening around the world, and/or you are so used to the news and its negative stories all the time. Has our media made some people apathetic towards these types of things? What a topic.

Meg Zanetich said...

In “Musee des Beaux Arts” W.H Auden makes it a point to bring to light the selfishness many people possess. It speaks about everyday problems in life, how we just push them aside if they have nothing to do with us. It is as simple as saying no big deal. Bad things happen to everyone, and this poem shows that people on the outside of these issues could really care less. Our empathy level is so low for one another because some people either dont care or just dont know how to respond. When people show no empathy for others it gives you a vulnerable feeling like no one can relate, although if people stopped what they were doing for one moment, they would realize that chances are this is something relatable to them in someway. A little empathy for a person goes a long way in life.

Francis said...

When I read the poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" I thought of this popular quote "sucks to be you." It is portrayed in the poem that people have difficulty empathizing with others. This is mainly because people don't care about the suffering of others unless it directly effects them. It's certainly interesting to read this poem now towards the end of the semester, because I have seen clear cut examples in cases where people don't empathize. People can be very selfish and only concern themselves with their own problems. The normal response when we hear that somebody is suffering or going throw a hard time we think this "I feel bad for them, but I'm glad it's not me." In other words we're saying to people that "Sucks to be you."

Joanna said...

"Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others in that it addresses the fact that people do not care about each other they way they should. The poem states that "The Old Masters" understand human suffering and that even as other, less intuitive people went about their everyday business, "They never forgot / That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course."
I think that when Auden refers to "The Old Masters" he is referring to philosophers and intellectuals, people of high intelligence who think about the world around them. Unfortunately too many people today are too self absorbed to think about others, leaving us in a downward spiral just as the boy falls out of the sky in Icarus because he didn't pay attention to his proximity to sun.

Bridget said...

The poem begins by saying that suffering takes places while most people are going about their every day business. Opening a window, or just walking dully along. He says that everything turns away quite leisurely from disaster, as if it is not their problem. That despite hearing a forsaken cry it is not important to those that hear it, and so they let the disaster happen.

Empathy is the ability to feel that disaster as if it is happening to you and to worry about the person who is in trouble. If we practiced more empathy then disasters might be prevented and bad circumstances adverted. If the ploughman had listened to Icarus's cry when the boy fell from the sky, maybe the boy could have been saved. The same is true of many everyday tragedies.

Arlene said...

In the poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," W.H Auden shows an important issue that still exists today which is feeling empathy for others. He illustrates how the "Old Masters" understood what others went through. Auden really goes into depth towards the end of the poem and how careless people are and how people only look out for themselves. Auden says: "As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

This part clearly shows how the boy was in danger drowning in the water and the ship sailed calmly without having the willingness to stop and rescue him. It is always important to have empathy for others and if able, help the person out it whatever you can.

Nicole Moss said...

In W. H Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" he describes human empathy and how it has seemingly been lost. People are not concerned unless they are directly impacted or involved. Instead of putting themselves into the situation or lives of others, people continuously put themselves in front of others, or as it is put in the last line "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." As if to say, why waste my time, I must move on with life.

When he speaks about the Old Masters, I believe it is the description of how empathy used to be present, and they never forgot even as time moved on and people around them forgot the true meaning of empathy. Empathy does not mean feeling sorry for someone, it simply means understanding, and helping in anyway that you can what someone may be going through.

Kelsey said...

In "Musee des Beaux Arts," W.H. Auden explains how people are losing the ability to feel empathy towards other people. Although it is ingrained in a person's memory, it is starting to get harder for people to act on those feelings.

"How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen"

This passage makes me believe that Auden feels as if people have lost the capability of feeling empathy towards other people. I believe he is saying that in younger generations, empathy is no longer being felt.

Rachel said...

First we must ask ourselves what the problem of feeling empathy for others is. Empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (Dictionary.com). I will suggest that the problem with feeling empathy thus is that people are not identifying with each other enough. The poem suggest that we as humans look inward, going about our day to day tasks, without much thought for the people and actions going out around us. It suggests that many people are missing both the extraordinary and ordinary happenings that are going on around us, that could lead us to experience, and thus enable us feel empathy on a wide variety of contextual issues.

Deidre Drewes said...

I'm a day late and a dollar short on this, however, I will post anyway even if I don't get credit for it.

The poem is obviously explaining how it is human nature to be more concerned with oneself than the safety of another. The boat and the man with the cart ignore the falling Icarus because they have their own worries and cannot be bothered to help. This lack of empathy is a growing issue as humans become more self-absorbed and less in-tune with people suffering around the world.

For instance, 24 hours news networks can be seen as shallow entertainment for the masses rather than provoking emotion while reporting the news.

Even deeper into the poem, I find that W.H. Auden is implying that everything in life is trivial; even the suffering of others. The Earth keeps moving when someone dies, others lives go on as someone suffers from AIDS. As humans, we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves, and our impact is something less than impressionable.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates

The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.

Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.