Teaching Notes

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

What Makes the Hottentot So Hot? (Courage)

Have you ever failed to voice your opinion because you feared the consequences? What was the situation (try to make it a significant one)? Why didn't you have the courage to speak (don't pick a situation where you wouldn't be expected to speak -- for example, as a child)? Please post your response by 4 p.m. on Wed., April 28.


Kim Dubin said...

From what I experienced I do remember a time where I failed to voice my opinion. It is not that I feared the consequences, but it was the feeling that it wasn't my place to step in. The situation was I was driving home from school, and there was a lot of traffic on the road. I was in the middle lane, and the people to the left of me were completely stopped. In one of the cars the guy must have put his foot to hard on the gas and went right into the car in front of him. It scared me, since it was literally right next to me during the traffic. You could hear the cars parts and bumpers fall off.

Many people asked me if I got out of my car and stopped as a witness. i just simply said no, since it was on a busy road and in traffic. Later on I thought though, "there was traffic, no one was really moving I could have pulled in front of the ladies car who got hit, but I chose not to." I didn't speak, because it was something that I felt I shouldn't get involved in. I wasn't positive how a witness's statement comes into play later on if the case goes far enough to court or anything. Honestly I could have stopped. I think it would have been courageous and noble. In some part of me however I felt it would bring time consuming circumstances, and I really didn't want to take the risk of dealing with the two people involved. I had no clue who they were, and how they would react if I voiced my opinion against that one person.

It was a very debatable situation to be in. What is wrong and what is right to do? The question crossed my mind a few times since. I also went back in my mind to when I was in a few bad car accidents my self just like that one. No one really stopped for me, or gave a helping hand when no one else saw what happened. Maybe in some part of me i felt if someone couldn't have the courage to step up for me, why should I step up for them? These are questions I still ask myself to this day, when getting in a situation like this one. I think that if god forbid something like this were to happen again where it was on a road that was safe to pull over, and give my testimony to what I witnessed I would do so.

LImpagliazzo said...

In my first real relationship, I never voiced my opinion. The guy was 5 years older than me.
I never asked any questions about what or why he was doing something. I just wanted the relationship to work. I did what he asked, dropped him off at his fathers, where I thought he was living, dropped him off at the babysitters, because he had a child. Never asked any questions for fear that it would end.
Turns out the guy was married and after I found out everything made sense. Because of that incident, I ask my current boyfriend way too many questions because I don't want to lose him.
If I had courage when I was 18, maybe things would have turned out differently for me, but I suffered the consequences. Now that I have courage to ask questions, I suffer other consequences, like the debate of lack of trust.

Lindsey said...

I have had a few situations where I did not have the courage to speak up but the one I remember clearly happened when I was a freshman in my first year of college. My major at the time was accounting and I was in a class with sophomores and juniors because I came in with a lot of credits. In one of my classes the teacher taught the accounting material in an extremely hard way when clearly there was a much easier way. Being a freshman I didn’t want to go against the teacher as well as look like a know it all to the older kids. I didn’t want to seem like the nerd and everyone to hate me or stare at me. I also didn’t want to make the teacher look bad or seem like I was correcting her so I kept my mouth shut. Not only did the class suffer with the hard way to do the problems, I did as well. I should have said something because I knew how to do the problems but in a different way. Every answer the teacher got, I had to. All that doesn’t matter anymore because I changed majors but I learned to voice my opinion more often. If I can’t do it in front of the class I could stay after or email the professor as I do now.

Alana Davis said...

I find this question hard to answer because you really need to sit back and think where did I fail ethically? And let's be honest, no one wants to admit that.

The one that really stands out in my mind was the end of my sophmore year in high school. I was best friends with three girls throughout most of my high school life. One dwindled off in 10th grade, and towards the end of that year, another stopped talking to the girl I was still good friends with. While hanging out with said rejected girl, "Allison" let's say, she would constantly trash the girl I was still best friends with. It went on like this every time we hung out. And me, nodding my head and agreeing stupidly, said nothing while she completely put down the other girl whom I felt was my sister.

I wanted so bad to keep both of them as friends that I did not tell "Allison" to stop talking shit. I feared she would lash out at me, and turn on me also, putting me down for liking the other girl as a friend. I was deathly afraid of conflict in high school. I believe not taking a stance in high school when this was going on is still the cause of my need to make everyone around me happy. I let Allison talk, just as long as it was between us. No matter if that voice was screaming in my head that it was wrong.

It got to the point where "Allison" made a very hurtful remark about my other best friend in my yearbook, and the other girl read it when she went to sign.

I was dumbfounded and could not say a word when she confronted me about it. The comment Allison wrote made it out to seem like I was the one talking shit also. And looking back, in a sense I was by not simply saying "Hey, she's my friend, sorry you don't like her." No, I let Allison dictate my voice by what I feared she would say if I spoke up.

Because of my inability to be courageous I lost my other best friend that summer. We did not talk for nearly a year and when I finally found the courage to kick Allison out of my life, I reconnected with the girl I had hurt. It took us a long time to get back to the place we were, but today, she's still my best friend. It was hard apologizing and gaining her trust again, but it was worth it.

It's so funny what some people won't say even when their best friend is getting trashed just to fit in.

Meg said...

Being only 20 years old and coming from a very small town I find myself looking back and realizing that I have not had a lot of experience in really voicing my opinion and standing up for something, which I guess is both good and bad in some cases. However there are a few high school experiences that I can remember in which looking back, now I realized I probably should have said something.
One instance in particular occurred my Junior year of high school. During that year, a lot of my friend began cheating in school. This included stealing answers to tests, or copying homework off of each other, or telling each other test answers. Now I'm sure a few of us have all cheated at something in our lives, but I'm talking about everyday occurrences where this cheating would happen. It didn't matter the subject, or whether or not it was a test or just homework, these kids woudl do whatever it took in order to get good grades. What's funny is that these kids were some of the smartest in the class. During Middle school they were the ones on top and this was without cheating. I think Junior year became a tough and stressful year in which that was the year you took SAT's, regents', start looking at colleges, etc, and I think these kids felt the pressure. Not that I'm justifying what they did. The problem is these kids were truly some of my best friends...had been since middle school so I felt torn as to what I should do. Ethically I knew it was wrong to cheat. I've been told my my parents and teachers for as long as I can remember. I think in my head I knew that I should tell someone because it wasn't fair to anyone as to what these kids were doing, however I couldn't bring myself to do it. By telling, I risked the chance of losing these friends and the fear of rejection by my peers was worse to me than if these kids were receiving unfair grades.
I think that's one of the major issues people have with courage, is that they feel if they stand up for something, there is a risk of failure or rejection by others. Especially being in high school, no one wants to feel like an outcast. Looking back now I still can't say whether or not what I would have done, however I think I have a better understanding now of what's important in life. After leaving high school, I realized that I was living in a bubble. I only cared about the people around me and what others though of me. I feel like now I have a better sense of what's really important to me and what I want to get out of life. A few of the kids have gone onto school and are actually making something of themselves, but then there are those that never left town. I still keep in contact with a couple of them who went off to school, but as for the ones who never left home, I don't think I've spoken to them since graduation. I've realized now that had we been a bigger school (I graduated with 84) I probably wouldn't have chosen those people to hang out with. At that time though those were my core group of friends that I did everything with and wasn't willing to give that up in order for justice to occur.
In the future I'm sure I will have to deal with cases of courage and honestly I want to face them. I want to use those experiences in order to test myself and my character so that one day I can tell a story like Professor Good's graduation experience and be proud of what I did and stood up for.

Kim Plummer said...

As a child, my dad treated me like the son he never had and we played lots of different sports together and practically every year I was obsessed with some different sport. But, football was different. I loved football. I loved to play it and I loved to watch the games with my Dad, so much so that when I was in 7th grade I decided that I was going to try out for the football team. This was seemingly a huge deal and a huge commitment beforehand. I had a physical, I had to fill out all this paperwork and, lastly, I had to attend the meeting where I would sign-up for tryouts. I completed all of these pre-requisites and my parents begrudgingly let me go to sign-up for tryouts.

I remember getting to the meeting early and I left the room for a minute to get water or use the restroom. When, I got back to the room, it was filled with over 50 male students and all the coaches and the door was shut. Nervous, I opened the door to come in and before I even stepped back inside the room, the coach yelled at me “What are you doing here?!” Shocked, I couldn’t even find the words to tell him I had signed up and handed my paperwork in and that I had to be on some list of his. He asked me, “Why are you here?” three more times. I stood there for a minute, fumbling for words, but I couldn’t find any. The opposition I was met with put me into some sort of paralyzing shock.

But, I knew exactly why I was there, I just felt so dejected and embarrassed in front of such a huge room of people that I couldn’t answer the question. I didn’t even go in to the room to pick up the stuff I had left in there. I just turned around and left, and cried the entire way home.

I never went back and I never tried out and I never got to play football anywhere except my own backyard. In retrospect, I was just so stunted by the opposition and loud words that I couldn’t even stand up for myself. It still blows my mind about how committed and how out of my way I went to be prepared for try-outs, but I couldn’t even stand up for myself to enter a room I had already been in.

Chelsea LaDue said...

There are many times where I have failed to voice my opinion in order to avoid scrutiny from those around me. This usually happened in high school. I went to a fairly conservative high school.I remember an instance in particular involving a girl that sat at my table in study hall. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but somehow gay issues were brought up. The girl proceeded to say some thing along the lines of "If I ever met a gay person I would shoot them in the head. They all deserve to die." My school was conservative, but I had never heard someone say something like that. I looked around at everyone and nobody said anything and some people were even laughing. I didn't want to start a conflict or make people think I was gay (considering the feelings people obviously had toward gay people at my school), so I kept my mouth shut.

I've always regretted not saying anything because I really didn't like that girl to begin with. I couldn't care less what she thought, but she was fairly popular in my high school, so I assumed she'd have more people on her side than I would have. I don't like the feeling of not sticking up for something I truly believe in. I let my fear of the consequences take over my reaction. Instead I just sat there quietly and didn't speak for the rest of study hall.

KHutchinson said...

This is a very hard question, particularly because I think as humans we are more likely to remember things we've done that make us proud rather than remembering the things that make us disappointed in ourselves.
After racking my brain, the most important memory I have of not speaking up would have been in my 8th grade year of middle school.
My homeroom teacher was also my music teacher, as well as my chorus teacher, and was a very frightening man.
Half way through the year I was told by a friend that he had inappropriately touched her in class by rubbing his hand up and down her leg.
The girl told her mother, and the issue was brought to the middle school principle, where it was determined that there was no proof of the allegation.
Now, it was no secret in the student body that this man had a history of being inappropriate, and I myself had heard him make a sexual remark toward a student.
At the time I felt trapped by the issue. If I came forward, there was a large chance that still, nothing would happen to punish the teacher, and I would be outted to him and still have to face him every day. My fear got the best of me, and instead of coming forward with the information I had (witnessing him being inappropriate with another student) I stayed quiet, and he was never punished for his actions.
At the time, I honestly wrestled with my options. As an 11 year old, I'm not surprised, but sad that I let my fear of personal discomfort persuade me to not back up someone who was in such a terrible position. I justified not coming forward with the fact that many other people with evidence just as I had, chose not to come forward, and that I should follow in their footsteps.
I haven't thought of the situation in years. I honestly forgot about it until right now. I'm ashamed that I didn't come forward and that I did not personally see to it that this man be removed from his teaching position, especially one that was with such young, vulnerable people, but at the time it seemed like the correct choice. I was afraid and had little back bone, especially when standing up to an adult.
I wish things had gone differently. I was extremely relieved that he left his position to retire a few years after I left the middle school, but I can only pray that no other students delt with his inappropriateness.

MBachmann said...

In high school I had dated a boy whose best friend would constantly cheat on his girlfriend. At first it didn't bother me as much because I wasn't really friends and didn't know the girl he was cheating on so it made it more ok, but still bothered me for two reasons. One, I really hoped his friend wasn't going to rub off on him and him cheat on me and also because this poor girl had absolutly no idea this was going on and they basically lived together, spending every second together. Then as the four of us started hanging out more i kept trying to distance myself from her because I was being put in a really bad situation. Stuck between keeping my word to my boyfriend and letting this poor girl know what was going on. Still today it bothers me because I wish that I had said something because i know if that was me, i would have liked to know the truth.

Maxim Alter said...

My incident is very similar to KHutchinson because it involves a teacher and inappropriate sexual conduct with students.

In 11th grade, my high school got a new gym teacher who was, to put it bluntly, a complete shit for brains. Because I have problems with asthma, he would constantly yell at me and treat me very poorly in comparison to the more "athletic" boys. He was also my soccer coach, which made my life even worse. But this wasn't even the bad part.

One day, one of my very good friends (who is a girl) came to me and told me that he had made sexual advances towards her in his office and, after being put under a lot of pressure from him, they ended up having sex. This was a grown man with a Junior in high school. I was pretty appalled. I then learned that he had sex with another student in my grade, and even kissed a third girl who was in my grade as well.

My whole life I've sort of been the person that people tell their secrets to. Two of the girls had come to me and told me this secret at different points during the school year. When I heard about the third girl, I felt like it was time to speak up. But when I told my close friend I was going to say something to the principal, she begged me not to. And because of not wanting to embarrass her or get her in trouble, I kept her secret and never said a word.

The worst part was, every week I had to look at him in gym class, and pretend like I knew nothing. To this day I regret my decision to say nothing. Luckily, he was caught shoplifting at a local grocery store near the end of the year and was forced to leave the school... Karma? He ended up moving really far away and I have no idea where he is now. It hurts just knowing I didn't have the guts to do what was right.

Andrew Limbong said...

A couple months ago, I was at work, and the guy who was managing (middle-age white male) was asking me where my coworker was. I shrugged and said "I don't know." My manager goes "yeah, he's probably cheering on his faggot Eagles or something" (the football team).

It's not that I'm a stickler for political correctness by any means, nor was I personally offended, but there was a certain tone to his voice that really emanated hate. Not just for the Eagles but for gay people too. I expect that kind of language from the high-school kids I work with, because I was like that when I was 17 too. But from a manager? Not only is it inappropriate work language, but he had no idea what my sexual orientation was, and could have easily offended me.

I ended up not calling him out on his unprofessionalism, because I didn't want to stir up trouble and/or lose my job.

Having just read Chelsea's comment, mine seems a bit small and insignificant. But I figure if you don't sweat the small stuff, the big stuff will end up eating you whole.

DevonP said...

I work at a grocery store where they employ several physical and mentally handicapped people. One of the guys graduated from college, and I honestly don't know what handicap he has, but you know he has a handicap. He is the nicest person that works at the store, and is always pleasant to everyone. However, he can sometimes be loud, and some would say annoying. I never make a big deal out of it but I have noticed that customers at the store can be mean to him. One time, the guy, Jim, was bagging for me and the customer was getting aggravated with all the questions Jim was asking about how she wanted her groceries bagged and she starting being a real bitch to him to be honest. Before he even started bagging I saw the woman give him a disgruntled look. I did not say anything to the woman about it because Jim didn't notice it, and she didn't do anything blatantly horrible, but it did bother me that I didn't say anything. I have noticed at our store, if an associate does speak out to a customer, the associate suffers the repercussions no matter what, which was also in the back of my mind.

Sarah Boalt said...

When it came to my cousins heroin addiction, I had a lot of trouble voicing my opinion. He's four days older than me, lives right next door, and has always been like a second brother to me. To put it plainly his parents treat him like shit. He wasn't good at academics, was overweight, and he basically just didn't meet their standards for a son. His father was always drunk and treated him horribly while his mother just didn't care. It's one thing to tell your cousin he has to stop using, but it's another thing trying to figure out how to tell your aunt and uncle who you barely have a relationship with in the first place to give a shit about their son so maybe he'll stop shooting up. I wish there was a way I could've said something before it got as bad as it did. Before he stole his best friend's quad. Every time he called me looking for pills, or every time I found him sleeping in my front lawn I just wanted to scream at them for being so careless. He's only getting help now because he got arrested for grand larceny, but it kills me that they wouldn't do anything other than kick him out of the house earlier. I was more afraid of what they would do to him if I told. He would've been gone for good for sure. I guess he needed to get in as much trouble as possible before they realized what a mess he was and that he just need them to be his parents,

Julia said...

One time when I failed to act specifically comes to mind. I take the bus from home to school a lot and sometimes I have to wait in the Albany bus station for several hours. Since it's a pretty sketchy place I usually try to read or listen to music to make the time go faster. One time a bus came in and as the passengers were unloading, I noticed a blind man enter the station from the bus. He made his way over to the pay phones and began fumbling with the buttons. I went back and forth on whether or not to help him. He started to seem distressed, but I continued to do nothing. I think my fear of him becoming angry at me stopped me. I've seen people try to help someone who is blind and they found it condescending. When my bus began to load I just walked past him. As soon as I was on the bus I wished I had helped him. I still do. When I told my mom about it, I tried to justify my actions (mainly to myself) that nobody else did anything either, and that I wasn't the only one that was wrong. My mom wasn't mad about me not helping him but she was sad that I tried to base how I should act on how other people were, even if it was wrong. Thats the only time she ever said to me "I raised you better than that." She was right.

Victoria said...

A specific time that comes to mind is something that happened recently. My very good friend was in a relationship for a few years, and I had become good friends with her boyfriend as well. One night I was out and I saw her boyfriend cheating on her. I talked to him about it. He promised me it was a one time thing, and I decided not to tell her, because I was worried that she would be hurt. I found out from mutual friends that he continued to cheat( with multiple partners), and I still had no courage to tell her. Eventually one of the girls sent my friends a facebook message, telling her everything that her boyfriend had been doing. I eventually came clean and told her I knew about this. She was more hurt by me not telling her that I knew, then she was by her boyfriend cheating on her. We are no longer friends, and I understand completely why she wants nothing to do with me anymore.
The reason why I feel this is so ethically unjust, is because by not acting in this situation I went completely against my own personal ideals. I am a strong supporter of women's empowerment and rights, and to let a man treat my friend that way is completely unlike me. When I think back I don't understand why I turned a blind eye to the situation and let it happen. I should have stepped in and not let her be lied to consecutively for months. I guess I felt it wasn't my place, but I think now I realize that when you are involved with helping someone in trouble(whether it is a friend or a stranger), ethically it is your place to do the right thing.

eden rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
eden rose said...


I should have told her, well I should have had the courage to tell her. I could be her in 10 years and that scares the shit out of me, but why didn’t I tell her? I could have been the reason for not feeling the pain that she will now feel for the rest of her life. I think it was her first time and hopefully her last. It was like she was on candid camera and I was the producer for those 6 years just watching in, but I wasn't laughing at this stunt. 6 years later and I still haven't made a peep, and its to late, he slipped up and got caught. I knew since their 2nd year anniversary that my dad was cheating on her. I didn't want to put my relationship with my father in jeopardy and while being “selfish” I let her get played. Every time i’d see her with him I just wanted to yell “GET OUT OF THIS NOW”. I didn't want my dad to be hurt, he wanted to have his cake and eat it to but at someone else's expense. I wish I didn't know because then I wouldn't have to build up the courage to stop the pain that she didn't see yet. She is a mother, child and lover and she was being slapped in the face for 6 years. 6 years of fakeness that could have been avoided if I had that courage to do what was ethical and just tell her. I did talk to my dad to see what the fuck he was thinking but 60 year old men especially this character, that he has portrayed his whole life, was stuck in his ways, so I put my feelings on hold, as well as hers. I struggled with whom I should give my allegiance to but I was torn. Now that I think about it I should have helped in making him feel as devastated as she must have been when she found out. Show him how much it hurts and how for once make him the one who was screwed not the one screwing.

J.Rodriguez said...

There was a friend I had who always used to do what he wanted to do no matter what anyone said. If someone told him something about what he was doing or about to do, he would argue with them and tell them it wasn't any of their business. He had a girlfriend who was actually a good friend of mines as well. one night me and my friend went out and I saw that he was flirting with another girl. I really wanted to say something to him because I felt that what he was doing was wrong, and that he was also basically disrespecting his girlfriend (my friend). I didn't want to start an argument with my friend but I was nervous as to what conflict this would stir up if I did say something. I always wondered what would have happened if I would have brought it up and to be honest there are times that I still want to bring it up, but as always I don't want to start an argument because he always blows things out of proportion.

Chanel Arias said...

Sorry mine is late as well! This was a really hard question for me to find an answer to.

A few months ago, me and two other friends went to the City for the weekend to celebrate my 21st birthday. I am brown skinned, while my two friends are Caucasian. I was having a great birthday night, we went to all the trendy bars we wanted to go to, everything was going great. On our way home, as we were waiting in the subway station for the next train, a group of 3 black guys walk toward our direction. As these guys were walking near us, one of my friends whispers, "oh my goodness, oh my goodness. so scary. what are they gonna do?" She was seriously freaked out. She was freaked out about 3 black guys that were walking near us, as they were smiling and joking with each other. Now obviously, she was only freaking out because of one reason. There I stood, even as a black studies minor, and said nothing. I stood there and did not comment on my friend's stupid and racist behavior. I did not voice my opinion out of fear that an argument would ruin my birthday night. All i did was roll my eyes and pretended I didn't know what she was talking about.

There have been more than one occasions like this where I have not voiced my opinion out of fear that I would ruin a pleasant mood. I guess I have yet to learn how to sacrifice a pleasant time in order to spread knowledge.

Samantha said...

Sorry I'm late.

I find myself in this situation pretty frequently. There have been times when I have had enough courage to speak my mind, but that is not often the case. I am generally a shy person when it comes to conflict and I try to avoid it at all cost. I went through a time during Middle school and High school when I was pretty mean to other girls out of insecurity. Now that I have grown out of that stage I think I have gone to the other side of the spectrum all together in which I rarely speak my mind for fear of hurting people's feelings or causing a disagreement.

In my house I live with 4 other girls and although we're good friends we often drive each other crazy. My one friend in particular, "Kim" can be harsh sometimes to other people without realizing it. There have been numerous times when she has made an off handed comment to someone else that I know hurt them. However, instead of sticking up for them and telling her that she's being unnecessarily harsh, I will often keep my mouth shut for fear that she'll retaliate on me. I know that this is not a courageous thing to do, but she could beat me in a yelling match in a second. Being away at school has definitely helped me to become a more outspoken and independent person, but I still am afraid of conflict and confrontation and it takes a lot for me to step out of my comfort zone and have courage to stand up for myself and others.

pspengeman said...

Sorry I'm late.

One thing I've failed (and continue to fail) to do was speak out against my religion. Being raised Christian, it was mandatory to go to church every Sunday, experience CCD, the whole works.

The thing is I never really believed, or at least were persuaded well enough to believe. The whole process is bullshit, and you don't learn shit, so you pump out a bunch of kids who have a half-assed view of religion. I got sick going to these masses -- I wasn't against the Church or God in any means, but if prayer and worship are to be executed it should be done with passion.

I never really spoke out because the consequences included grief from my family, unnecessary controversy, and coming off like a self-righteous non-conformist. But hey, as long as the voice your burying isn't heavy enough to make you sick, you can bear with it until you get a better chance to escape it.

JustinMcCarthy said...

I hadn’t seen an old friend of mine in a while and was excited to catch up with her when she invited me out to dinner with some of her friends.
When she picked me up, we hit it off again just like we did in the old days. I knew most of her friends vaguely and they seemed nice.
As we pulled up to the restaurant, they told me that another one of their friends would be coming as well. It was a coworker of theirs whom they had nothing but nasty and mean things to say about.
I was confused as to whether or not she was their friend. Everything they said about her was mean.
“Why do you guys hang out with her then?” I asked.
“Because it’s funny,” they said.
I thought that maybe they were all just joking.
When the girl finally arrived, I was shocked. She clearly had a mental disability of some sort. I was immediately bothered by the fact that they were saying such cruel things about a girl with special needs.
When she sat down, they continuously teased her. The girl laughed at most of the jokes they made about her and seemed unaware they were making fun of her.
I didn’t know what to do. I had a huge moral issue with what they were doing and couldn’t believe the audacity they had. My friend was the one who was giving me a ride so I couldn’t just get up and leave without her.
Although I had a huge problem with what they were saying about this girl, I did not speak up because I thought I was the only one who would stick up for her and because I was with people I barely knew.
I never hung out with that friend again. It’s been years since that happened, but every time I think about it, I feel guilty because I didn’t speak up.

George Selby said...

I remember in my senior year of high school there was a large amount of controversy about something. I can’t remember what the controversy was because I was much more concerned with what had happened to one of my friends. It was something about money, something to do with the school’s budget. It was a big deal at the time. So my friend organizes a walk out. He wanted everyone to walk out of the school in the middle of the day, to protest an improper use of money. So I thought it was awesome and decided I’d go with him.
The Principal walked into our classroom and asked for my friend by name, after word had gotten around that he was staging a protest. The Principal told him that there could be no protest, because if there was he would get suspended for a week and unable to graduate.
Then I thought about it, and brought up that we should protest without my friend, especially since what seemed to be his freedom of speech was being shushed. It was a good idea, and some classmates said they would help, but then I backed off. I just got afraid of screwing up my graduation. I just immediately convinced myself that it wasn’t worth it.
And then I felt pretty bad about not doing anything. I still feel like we were violated. I felt like I had proved to myself that protests can never work, because someone will always be in danger. Since then I have also viewed protesters as great heroes.

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.