Teaching Notes

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Empathy

Under "Links of Interest. . . " on this blog, you'll find a poem by W. H. Auden titled "Musee des Beaux Arts." By 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20, please post a comment as to how the poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others.

34 comments:

Sam Speer said...

This poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others in a variety of ways. First, it speaks about how the old masters were never wrong in the way they understood the thoughts and sensitivity of others. The poem goes into speaking of a “miraculous birth” and there will always be people who didn’t want their birth to happen, and took their lives for granted. At the very end of the poem, it describes the fall of Icarus. Icarus, a Greek mythological figure, who had wings but was advised not to go close to the water, because it would soak the wings, and not to fly to fly close to the sun because it will melt him. In the end, he flew close to the sun, which melted his wax and crashed into the sea and died. The poem dives into speaking about religious acceptance of suffering. The poem is basically about how humans view individuals human suffering. At the end, it definitely focus’s on the idea of human suffering, because it speaks of a ship that heard the boy (Icarus) cry and had somewhere to get to and continued to sail onward, unfazed.

Howie Good said...

"miraculous birth" in poem may well refer to the nativity. . .

Adrienne W said...

I think that the poem seems to focus no on how people feel empathy for others, but rather how they may not feel empathy for others. At the end of the poem it says how the ship sails on even after witnessing the boy fall and how the ploughman thought it was an unimportant failure and paid no attention to it. It says that the masters were never wrong about suffering, but it also said how everyone goes about their buisness, eathing, walking or opening a window, that no one seems to take notice of the suffering.

GrobM said...

Really? I must be dense. This poem is really hard to understand being a cultural barbarian and all. It appears that global warming was an issue then as it is now! Anyway, life is a series of events(Story). The poem states that people are born and die everyday. Unfortunately, people get caught up in monotonous events each day which block their ability to show empathy towards others. That is what I got out of the poem.

Howie Good said...

The poem suggests artists -- at least the classical kind -- have empathy for their subjects, which may be why they create classics. Do current culture producers -- filmmakers, pop musicians, journalists -- exhibit similar capabilities for empathy? The makers of Saw IV, for example? Or the audience for it?

GrobM said...

Not really, we live in a selfish society where people are only looking out for their own benefit. I have never seen any of the Saw movies they never peaked my interest. However, U2 could be considered an artist or band that shows empathy for others, they are always trying to support a cause. As well as Derek Jeter. There are only a few out there, hopefully people will start to emulate them and not the slugs.

Colin V. said...

the poem touches on the fact that suffering is part of human life, and is understood by all who have ever known life. which, i feel, means that all humans can relate to each other for the reason that we all know what it is to suffer.

the empathy in the poem becomes very apparent in the latter half of the poem where he talks about breughel's painting. the ploughman and the boat are too busy with their own lives and workings to pay attention to the boy who has fallen from the sky. though they may have heard his cries or seen him fall, it is not their issue directly, or so they feel, and that means they do not have to do anything to help.

the old masters are the painters and "classics" creators, and breughel is able to be an artist because he is able to empathize. does that mean that all who create art are the best empathizers? because they are able to take emotions felt by others and put them into a medium that allows others to experience the emotions?


perhaps the "miraculous birth" the aged are waiting for is in fact the heaven that comes when one dies. and the youth do not want to die, for they are still young and want to live their lives riskily on the frozen pond at the edge of woods. flirting with danger and experience.

i dont feel that all current culture producers have the ability to empathize like the "old masters." too much is based on what the audience wants to see, and how we as an audience can be entertained. the ability to empathize requires too much work for peoples brains, and too many people arent willing to put in the effort.

to be honest this poem still makes my head turn.

Howie Good said...

it's been partly my goal this semester to make your heads "turn," as Colin says -- turn, that is, to other perspectives and ideas you might not have previously or otherwise considered. . . .

one test of the worth (moral and aesthetic -- are they the same?) of a work of art might be whether they makes us, the reader or viewer, feel more alive or more dead. . .

Alyssa said...

I feel the poem compares the pain of one person to the everyday life of everyone else.while one person somewhere in the world is suffering you can be sure that someone else is going on about thier daily actives. For example the house wife that likes to watch the news every mornig, hears a story about how a man in Florida killed his family in their sleep shakes her head,and continues to make breakfest for her family with out a second thought.
Pherhaps this isn't as graphic as a "miraculous birth occurs" being compared to "the disaster" of Icarus's death, but i feel its the same thing on a differnt level. The point is its natural to feel empathy for a person's suffering, but in todays society where a nations entire grief can be caught on tape, and broadcast all over the world.It over uses the Empathy people have for one another until these feelings become not real. When people come to except epic disater as a norm we lose our ability to show true empathy to one another.

Michelle V said...

It starts out talking about the old masters and how they understand "the human position" or how they understand others situations. It moves on to talk about how life must always move forward in the births both babies and the idea of an awareness that people are waiting for. The moment when people start feeling empathy when they are children that they can choose to accept it or ignore it. They "turn away quite leisurely from disaster". The end then talks about the amazing things the people on the boat saw but continued on their way doing nothing. It pertains to the chapter because journalist are in a postion to see some pretty big things both good and bad and in both cases they see it but are not really involved and is that to their benefit or to the benefit to those they are writing about? By standing by and doing nothing sometimes that isn't the best thing even if they are there just to report it.

Jaime Prisco said...
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Jaime Prisco said...

I agree with most of the previous post. This poem talks about how the situations of others are often forgotten or deemed unimportant because other people are too busy living their normals lives to focus on the distress of others. However,i do think it presents a kind of hope. This may not be accurate, but the poem talks about how though Icarus had fallen, the sun still shone. To me, i think it displayed this feeling that though bad things happen, life continues. Im not saying that people should not be empathetic towards others but by letting all of the distress of the world captivate you, you forget the beauty and happiness. Though there was disaster, the sun was still shining, a new day was dawning and a new beginning.Life goes on,no matter the worlds problems and by showing that, the opportunity to make a difference is always present, this is that hope.There is always another day and who knows the possibilites that exist within that day. However, i think that the poem does allude to the fact that society as a whole are focused on situations that only affect them personally, not realizing or just not caring about the struggles of others.
I do believe that classical artist are more empathetic than todays artist. The art they create is guided by the feelings they are experiences and if they were lacking those feelings, the art work would be lacking also.However, and you may hate me for saying this, i do think that many of the artist today use these same practices. I've seen a lot of celebrities who know that there opinion (though it shoulnt) makes a bigger impact on some of the youth than normal people. Many of them use that power to promote charity work or spread information about certain situations that people may not know about. Of course, not all celebrities do this but many of them use there money and influence to teach and inform others. Though it may not be right, the power that these people possess to sway opinions is extreme so if they use the power with good intentions, the possibilities for empathy in the world is greater.

Howie Good said...

another way to think about the "sun shining" is that the universe is indifferent to human suffering. . . .which may make empathy an even more urgent capacity to develop. . . . despite the obstacles to its development that the chapter and poem describe.

Howie Good said...

One more thing: the "miraculous birth" refers to the birth of Jesus and the old men are the magi. . . what Auden is suggesting that the event when it occurred was little noticed by most

LindsayArden said...

I think this poem is a perfect example of the role empathy plays in society, perhaps today even more than when the poem was written. It explains that while one person is experiencing a dull, monotonous moment in their everyday life, somewhere else a baby is being born, a hero is dying, potentially world-altering things are going on. Even if the unaffected individual is one capable of the feeling of empathy, they may not be aware, specifically, of these other things going on, and thus cannot pay mind to them. In today's crazy, busy world, how can we really be aware of what does not occur within the confines of our environment? What this poem says to me is that empathy should be a constant, persistent emotion. We should always pay mind, and heart, to the mere idea of the pains and joys of others, because one day, those life-altering events will be our own, and we hope others will pay mind to us.

Lindsey Claro said...

This poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others in a few ways. I think that the poem is recognizing that all around us at every moment, there are people going on to live their lives. On any given day, someone might be going through a horrific ordeal and simultaneously someone might be having a usual ordinary day “just dully walking along” where nothing of importance happens at all. Whatever it is… life does go on and the sun continues to shine. We can see an event on the news that makes us have sympathy for someone, it’s only natural, but do we ever really feel true empathy for them? We most likely haven’t had to endure the suffering that they’ve gone through, so how can we be capable to understand another’s feelings and emotions, regarding their heartbreaking situation? We certainly can try but the ability to actually understand their pain is impossible unless we’ve experienced the same thing. To me, the poem is saying that life goes on and that in the midst of all the tragedy that surrounds us, we all “have somewhere to get to,” so we just “calmly sail on” and go about our lives.

Allison Sofer Says said...

This poem relates to empathy in a few different ways. I agree that it focuses more on how people do not feel empathy for others, and how humans are sorely lacking because they do not feel empathy, rather than focus on people who do feel empathy for others. It talks about how people get stuck in an infinite loop of selfishness, focusing on themselves and their own. It has been like this for a long time, and will stay the same until something breaks the loop.

The poem also relates to how people do not wish to feel empathy, but wish to get themselves settled before worrying about others, and not wanting to help those in need. Empathy is not about wanting to do right, it is about actually doing right, and helping others. When you feel for those around you, you must have some urge to help them. The poem, rather starkly, emphasizing that humans do little to help others.

AndreaV said...

I think that the poem realtes to the problem of empathy by pointing out how often people go about their daily lives and often don't think about the suffering of others whether it be something that is happening else where or even right in front of them. That we miss events because we are often too absorbed in our own lives to realize that others are suffering.

This pertains to the chapter in that journalists often attempt to consciously attempt to do the same thing in an attempt to remain objective.

nekaiya trotman said...
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nekaiya trotman said...

I think the poem is saying that life will go on no matter what. Even if there are people that have empathy for others and people who don't. Everyone in society will continue to fulfill their role,animals will be animals, children will be children and people will continue to eat, sleep and do all the things they do on any given day. It then gives an example of this by incorporating Breughel's Icarus. The painting depicts someone drowning in the water while everyone else is carrying on with their day. It shows that people are wrapped up in themselves and the mind frame that they have to do whats best for them without giving other people or their problems a second thought.
"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."
The fact that one can witness someone falling out of the sky and not give it much attention shows that people do not have much empathy for others at all.

Kellie Nosh said...

I think that this poem relates to empathy in the way that some people feel it and some people don't. Though it says the masters were never wrong, I think that this directly relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others. Too many people think that whatever problem is occurring in their lives is the worst, and they fail to realize that others are going through potentially devastating things. Regardless, like other people have said, it seems that the poem is about the world going on no matter what, which is true. Even though the boy fell into the water, the ship continued without him. Life goes on, yes, but I think that people need to recognize empathy rather than ignore it altogether.

Vince said...

I think this poem shows the ineviability of suffering, everyday there is suffering and I think that this poem shows how some people choose to deal with suffering. One of the lines says "how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along", I think this shows how suffering goes on always and life goes on. The poem also says that martyrdom must run its course, that is the problem with feeling empathy for others, it causes suffering for yourself.

Brian Coleman said...

This poem relates to the problem of empathy, by stressing the fact that life goes on. No matter what tragic thing that is occurring in your life, there is someone experiencing a blessing, and vice-versa. Auden collides extreme and non-extreme events, to demonstrate how humans deal with each of these. Like previous post have said, I feel that this poem discusses empathy, by showing examples of how people can be unsympathetic. The most powerful part of the poem, in my opinion, was the last few lines where he talked about the boy who fell off the boat, and the captain was not phased and the boat sailed calmly on.
This reminds me of society today in some aspects, because a lot of times, people have their own agenda on their mind, and that's it. It got me thinking of the second formulation of the categorical imperative, and how people should be treated as a means to an end. Have sympathy for others, and don't just use them to reach your goal.

Nick Miggs said...
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Nick Miggs said...

This poem tries to explain the problems with humans feeling empathy towards each other. It dives deep into how humans react towards individual suffering. The poem goes to describe the miraculous birth occurring. This is made to counter balance the disaster of Icarus's death. For every terrible act or death to happen there is an act of birth that will replace it. It argues that people will merely go about their own business and are concerned with themselves.

Howie Good said...

i need more detail in some of these responses. i'd like to see some real thought. i've raised questions throughout this thread. respond to one of those if you have nothing to add to the original post.

i'll say this again: the miraculous birth (christian) and icarus' death (pagan) both provoke the same response to humanity -- ho-hum.

think of the torture going on today in u.s. detention centers around the world when you read about the torturer's horse rubbing its rear on a tree.

think of your empathy for the victims of torture.

maybe that'll get you to delve a bit deeper into not only the poem, but also its applicability to the current human situation.

Howie Good said...

i need more detail in some of these responses. i'd like to see some real thought. i've raised questions throughout this thread. respond to one of those if you have nothing to add to the original post.

i'll say this again: the miraculous birth (christian) and icarus' death (pagan) both provoke the same response to humanity -- ho-hum.

think of the torture going on today in u.s. detention centers around the world when you read about the torturer's horse rubbing its rear on a tree.

think of your empathy for the victims of torture.

maybe that'll get you to delve a bit deeper into not only the poem, but also its applicability to the current human situation.

Pamela A. said...

I agree with most of the posts as to why the the poem discusses empathy. Auden touches upon human suffering. "That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course"; meaning simply that everyone and everything reaches their end. However, "...someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". The world continues to run its course; individuals will go about their day even in the presence of tragedy. Life goes on when something miraculous happens, why shouldn't it go on when a tragedy occurs? They both are components of life. The author simply describes the fact that we as human beings have come to terms with the realities of life. Death being a part of it. Auden emphasizes the calamities of life and explains that even though the sailor might hear the "forsaken cry" it doesn't change the fact that he has somewhere to be. We might all be aware of the tragedies around us, but does it affect us? Does it make us stop what we're doing to do something about it? The poem says we don't and probably never will because death and tragedy will always be part of our existence.

Howie Good said...

is it deadening to be dead to others' suffering? do media contribute to our deadening? if icarus or christ's births were on the evening news or a news web site, would we appreciate them for what are or truly mean? Or would we turn the dial, impatient to watch AMERICA HAS TALENT (or get to work or get stoned or get the laundry done. . .)?

Patrick Mattei said...

The poem suggests that the most important things go unnoticed by most people because they all feel their own lives and duties are more important. People try to distance themselves from the problems by ignoring and say that it doesn't directly effect them, which is probably a reason the world is in the condition it is in.

The line
"Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood" kind of says to me that society as a whole is acting as naive as children; they don't want the responsibility given to them, but they have to take it.


To answer your first question, I feel that there are still many artists of today that do feel empathy for their subjects and audiences. but the people that are not "artists" see the creations as just a way to make money and end up stripping any possible artistic merit away from the piece in order to create the most profitable and marketable end result.

JulieMansmann said...

First, I'd like to say that some of the comments on here really made my "head turn" as well, so thanks to everyone. Punctuation can tell a reader a lot about a poem, and therefore I think it is interesting to look at this piece in the two halves that are divided by one of two periods in the middle of the poem. I think the first half of the poem does deal with the cycle of life and death and what falls in between. For example, the poet mentions birth and the aged in the same couplet of lines, therefore closely linking different stages of life. It is interesting that Auden employs imagery of children skating on ice near the woods who "did not want it to happen," so he says; this could imply that people do not want to end their lives(trees are implicate growth)but are humans simply going through the motions of their human life, if you will. This connects to the ideas presented in the second half of the poem about others are not always empathetic or understanding about the suffering of others. The mythological allusion and reference to the painting point out, as others have said, that others found it easier to shuffle along in their lives than attempting to understand the predicaments of others. They are, as the poet suggests, "sailing along calmly through life."

Personally, I have struggled with questions about empathy people have for each other. I feel like people in the entertainment industry sometimes act as though they do understand the predicaments of real people, putting forth shallow messages that probably don't have any meaning behind them. Ironically, I will quote Kurt Cobain, who said "it is too easy for people to...have empathy (empathy!)" While, like others on this board, I feel there are people who make a general effort to develop a sens of understanding with others, this is too often not the case. I don't know I guess part of the reason why I wanted to be a reporter was to find out more about other people, talk to them, learn about their lives and what they do. To me, journalism should be about establishing a sense of understanding between people in a far reaching way.

Kevin Harvey said...

The poem Musee des Beaux Arts relates a lot to the feeling of empathy for others. The poem centers around two main points the miraculous birth and death which is said to be in reference to Christianity. The context of the story revolves around Icarus a mythological figure that was given wings to fly but flow to close to the sun so his wings melt causing him to fall into the sea. The poem points out that people are unaware of everything happening all around them. We humanly can’t, but we can understand the full significance behind it. If we were able to conceptualize the importance of these milestones of both life and death, we as humans would better be able to understand and feel empathy.

We are part of a world that’s only getting busier and going at a faster pace as time progresses. Our generation has to contend with two things though, the fact that our world is going at an even faster pace than it ever has in the past and is being supported through technology. And that in living our own individual lives, life also seems to go at a faster pace as we age. We have more responsibility and more things to do as we get older. The two combined cause us to lose touch with empathy for others. The greatest fault throughout time that we haven't been able to overcome through evolution is the pursuit of self-satisfaction without complete regard for others.

If you ever put yourself in a situation where you look back and regret not doing something for someone else, you’ll come to realize you did it out of self interest. You did it out of self-interest and the importance you placed in something that directly benefitted you. Ever since birth we’ve been raised with the importance of an education to make money and be financially secure. We’ve been raised with greed and it’s supported with an artificial reward that we as humans created. There are few people that go to school just to learn and be educated and are satisfied with just that alone. If that were the case people wouldn’t be so concerned with getting a B over and A, and be so upset about it that they feel compelled to cheat if it means getting a better GPA; a GPA that an employer uses to judge a person. A GPA says two things either I’m naturally more gifted than other people, or I received it by means that went undetected and therefore I’m clever and an asset to you as well. That’s sadly all society is concerned with.

Kevin Harvey said...

It all comes back to greed and a chasing after something that has been artificially created. Currency is artificial and is at the root of our society, so therefore our society is artificial and tries to at times attain the artificial nothingness in ways that challenges our ethics and morals. Greed starts from the upper echelon of society and is only passed down in values and it what makes this society run. Society is based off of an artificial premise and therefore we as humans lose touch with understanding the feeling of empathy for others. The reason sports figures and artist that do good deeds have more sway is because of their fame. A good deed is only a good deed when it goes unnoticed by everyone but the individual that’s affected. With fame comes money and everybody likes money so therefore some people are always striving for fame without taking into account their actions. Take the recent news about the Heene family for instance. It isn’t the fame their after, it’s the artificial reward that comes with it that blinds them so much that they would claim that their child is floating away without much concern and empathy for even their own child. It affects every aspect of society. You can take any situation and see a reason why empathy is dismissed as not being important and it all comes back to self interest.

So that’s life in a nutshell, depressing in some ways but what’s awesome about it is getting old. As you become older you slow down and get to ponder everything we were to blind to see before. You start to see things for what they are because you’re wiser. You get to really understand the feeling of empathy for others and put less concern on your own self interest. The years leading to death are likely the most important years in someone’s life. It’s when you really start to cherish things you said you once cherished when you were younger without giving them much thought. Old age gives you the opportunity to reflect on life and its true meaning. That’s something we all should do more often when were younger but rarely take the time to really understand.

Human beings are a representation of the world around us. We are the creators of our own reality. So if by seeing the similarities of the world and the life cycle of a human life is it not safe to say the most important years of the world shall be the last few. With the world we have no prior knowledge of when it will end so we can only speculate. But one thing’s for sure, I’m positive it will find a way to slow down and reflect on its own existence and realize the mistakes it’s made, and what really mattered throughout its existence. It may just be that it was able to support the miraculous gift of life and death to billions it was so blessed to have experienced itself. What will you reflect upon in your old age?

Anonymous said...

Empathy is basically understanding what someone else is going through because you have gone through it as well. You are familiar with the emotions, thoughts, ideas, etc. that deal with a certain issue. I notice that right away the first line in the poem deals with empathy because it states "About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood." They were never wrong when it came to understanding what suffering feels like because we all suffer as humans. Some suffering may be more severe than others, but we all do suffer in some way, shape, or form.

When others don't realize that some are dealing with suffering is usually when it is occuring. "how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." This shows how often suffering happens. One person can be going about their life, while others are suffering terribly.

I think what most people have toward one another is sympathy because they feel bad for the other person's situation. That doesn't necessarily mean that they know what it feels like to go through the pain and suffering that they are dealing with.

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.