Teaching Notes

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life 101

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, philosophy professor William Irvine says many people have trouble naming their grand goal in living. Do you? In other words, of the things in life you might pursue -- fame, fortune, love, self-realization, social change, escape, wisdom, power -- which is the thing you believe to be most valuable? Why? Do you consider the thing to be ethical? Is that part of why you desire it.

Your response is due by 6 p.m, Sunday, August 29. Remember, no late responses.

26 comments:

bina fronda photography said...

Its hard to decide in one specific goal in living, when I generally have so many goals in mind, but if I were to pick one, right now it would be self- realization. Although I believe in love and its power, I always find myself making decisions to better myself, understand my thoughts more clearly. Many people make so many sacrifices for others, that often times they forget to make decisions for their own good. In many cultures, this would be considered unethical because it would be looked upon as selfish. We , however, are part of a culture that thrives on individuality and praises self understanding. This relates to the notion that ethics comes from culture, family and background. Self-realization would be considered unethical in one part of the world, but completely normal in the other. In my world, it is praised, and yes, that is part of why I desire it, but I want it even more because I cannot pursue all the other goals in life such as love, wisdom and success without it.

Pamela said...

What perfect timing. Yesterday I sat in my Intro to Human Services class and quietly freaked out about How I was going to achieve my main goal in life. Out of the list you have provided, social change is what I value the most. Creating social change is a journey where one can develop wisdom and experience love.

In the past few years, I’ve developed a sociological imagination, the ability to recognize the social forces and inequalities that affect the actions of an individual. With a sociological imagination came a better understanding of myself and a moral imagination.
I think that attempting to create social change, especially within our own communities, is ethical and definitely part of the reason that I want to pursue it. Like many have mentioned, my ethics has a lot to with my upbringing. The desire to improve my society is definitely a result of growing up in a neighborhood highly distressed by social forces and inequalities, with weak education systems, cheap sugar water and grass-less playgrounds.

For a long time, I had no idea how I wanted to create or encourage social change. The last couple of years I’ve been trying to find different jobs where I could positively influence my community. In New Paltz, one outlet has been journalism and the other has been working for places like the New Paltz Youth Program and the Children’s Center. I’ve learned that by meshing with soulful, social-change lovers, I can create one big effective project toward achieving some kind of social change.

I definitely have a vision, a project that I hope to achieve once I get out of college inspired by people I’ve known and worked with and the desire to be ethical, fair and equal. While Irvine might be right about people having trouble naming their grand goal in life, I think that a lot of people know that they want to do, but face obstacles like financial instability or a weak support system. Such obstacles are what lead to a constant change in goals and ultimately an unclear vision of what we really want and can do in life.

Maria Jayne said...

I believe my all time goal for life would have to be "to be happy." This may stand for many different things for different people but it is never changing. As human beings we all need love, affection, understanding, and virtue but no one realizes how important happiness can really be until you do not have it.
Happiness has to be the most ethical entity in the world although, it depends on how you achieve it. If someone it putting others down in order to gain respect or recognition that might result in a short lived happiness but it will not feel wholeheartedly good. As an aspect of this goal it must be completely pure and non-selfish. Of course, being happy for others is always fitting however, this can be sometimes bittersweet and happiness in its entirety is a completely pure unadulterated substance thus the appeal.

Jonathan said...

I agree that it is hard to define the grand goals in life. It is much easier to just imagine a bigger picture of what you dream to be doing in the future, and with yourself. However, if I had to choose just one thing in life that i would pursue, it would probably be love. Granted, it would be nice to be a billionaire & spend all my time on a yacht, but some of the most unhappy people I know have tons of stuff & are still not satisfied. I feel like love helps you develop that satisfaction.

Love is the purest form of happiness, and when you truly feel it it is as if nothing else matters. In my opinion, being infinitely happy is better than having an infinite amount of things.

Also, i believe that Love is a very ethical goal because the sole purpose of it enjoy and spread what you are doing. Whether it be spreading that love and happiness to the target of your affection, or spreading the message about whatever it is that you love to do, having love in your life will complete you and make all the other nonsense seem small and stupid.

Jenn Von Willer said...

My main goal in life is to reach contentment. I don’t care about fame, love, or fortune because they can disappear at any moment. Dealing with stress and tragedy with positive energy and strong coping skills is easier than handling fame, love and fortune with a good head on your shoulders. As long as I am content in my own skin and appreciate the path my life is taking me, I have no desire for any other grand goals. It’s ethical to me because everyone wants a quick fix of happiness without the hard work and being grateful for what’s already in your life. If I can’t be content with certain situations, I would at least strive to find a way to be satisfied with the big picture, or my life as a whole. If you’re content, you have the ability to help others reach it too.

Dave Cohen said...

My ultimate goal has always been to be happy and satisfied with the choices I've made in life. Career wise I have always wanted to be a radio dj. That's the reason I came to New Paltz in the first place. Currently I am a weekend dj for a commercial station so I am on my way to achieving my goal. Radio has always been an area where ethics have been discussed. With the early years of radio and the payola scandels all the way to the shock jocks of today radio has been a battlefield for the first ammendment and other ethical issues. That is one of the reasons I love that medium, and the reason I chose this class.

Marietta Cerami said...

I really like Jonathan's response and I have to say I agree with what he has to say. I think it is admirable that people like Pamela are determined to work for the greater good and create social change and I understand how pursuing such a goal is self-fulfilling. For me personally, the best thing I could hope to receive from this life is to love and be loved. When I think about all the people in my life that I love I know that the relationships I have with those people are so special and unique that no amount of anything could surpass it. Any other aspects of life such as knowledge, fortune, or fame are just awesome footnotes compared to the big picture of love, passion, and friendship.

I think it is completely ethical to want to share love with others. I think if love was unethical it probably would not feel as good as it does. Of course there are the exceptions like when it comes to adultery and lust. Those are things that end up hurting people. True and honest love however is respectable and moral. Doing what is ethical does not always make people feel good. Sometimes we find that we are battling with ourselves in order to fight our selfish desires. In this case however, I think ethics and love are harmonious.

Zan Strumfeld said...

Well, apparently I'm one of those people that Irvine is speaking of. I read this blog about three times and sat at my desk pondering my "grand goal in living." I suppose I never really thought about one main goal in what to live for. We always say we need something to live for, which is true, but I guess mine just keeps changing. Sometimes it's the fact that I want to write a story or a novel that will really change someone's views or thoughts on an issue, or to take a deeper, self-reflective look on their own lives. I'm still working on that. Other times, it's to continue to surround myself with strong, influential people that can help me grow and love life more every day. I suppose my values just keep changing and I can't give a valid answer. Maybe this will help me look deeper into my life.
For what I have stated before, I think my reasons are pretty ethical. If I am trying to benefit myself and others and doing so in a positive matter, it seems ethical to me. I feel that what I want will stay as ethical as possible in order to be fair to myself and others.

K. Carroll said...

I definitely struggle to identify my ultimate goal in life. It changes almost daily, depending on my mood. I want to be financially stable, successful, and happy. I’d love to live overseas, but I’m afraid it won’t work out. I’d like to work my way up to some kind of position of power, where I have influence over people, but sometimes wonder if I could handle that kind of responsibility.

For today, I’d like to be fully aware of myself. What makes me happy, what doesn’t, what direction I really want my life to go in, how I want to get there, who I’d like to spend it with, that sort of thing. I feel like having that sort of self-awareness will help me achieve all of my other goals. I’d be better equipped to handle whatever challenges may arise.

I don’t see a reason why self-realization is unethical. I want to figure out what’s best for myself, and in turn, everyone around me. It’s my way of making sure things work out okay.

kiersten said...

It is definitely difficult to pick out one goal that you value the most. At this point in my life I would say that developing wisdom is the most valuable. I think that wisdom allows a person to understand others a lot more, where they are coming from and will give one the power to make ethical choices. I still am not positive what I ultimately want my life to be like years from now; I am constantly changing my mind about what I want to do. I know that I want to help other people all around the world. I believe that wisdom will allow me to move through all the stages of my life with ease and will help me make the right decisions no matter what the situation is. Through valuing wisdom I think that you can attain the other goals you gave as examples: love, fame, self realization, social change etc.

AGRAPS said...

It is not difficult for me to admit that my personal goal is to find a constant form of happiness throughout all stages of my life. I find the term to be vague, but appropriate; what makes me happy today surely may not make me happy in five or ten years. Today I seek a better sense of self, obtainment of more knowledge in my subjects, and some immediate fortune could certainly help (in reference to my recent bank statement). Therefore, I believe that things such as love, fame, wisdom, etc., coincides and overlaps greatly with the vague concept of happiness. The stages of my life will determine the definition of the word happiness. Seeking happiness is a global desire for the most part, but how I may choose to gain my eternal happiness may be unethical to some but ethical to others, depending on cultural differences, location, moral differences, etc.

Samantha Minasi said...

I agree with Zan that as I evolve into myself, my goals are often changing. However, there's always been a common thread in my endeavors. I've always wanted to help other people (and animals) in some way. Lately I've started to think that I can accomplish this through inciting social change. Whether that may be through journalism, through humanitarian work, or simply helping and loving those around me and hopefully creating a ripple effect of compassion and genuine care for other people. ( I have yet to discover which of these avenues will lead me to my "grand goal")

I believe that trying to fix the world around us is a more valuable goal than contributing to deteriorating it by living a selfish and superficial lifestyle. Some one said earlier that fame, fortune and even love can all be gone in an instant and I couldn't agree more- but if you are actively doing good, and being a good person- you will always know that, and always have that.

I consider my goals to be ethical. And yes, it is defiantly safe to say that their ethically sound intentions are part of what make them my goals. As I sort of said earlier, I guess given the world of greed, and excess we live in the more I think about it the more I feel that if I just remain open minded, and well-intentioned, and active in my goals to better my world I can always be happy with myself for that.

Kaitmint said...

My grand goal in life has always been love, but as of late I feel a very important goal for me has become self-realization. I believe that love is the most valuable, with it I have made many important and ethical decisions in my life. Self realization will help me discover who I am and who I want to be and I feel as if I am on the path of realizing the person I am and how that will shape my future and my career. I also feel like you can't have one without the other. If you have no self realization how can you truly have love? But I also feel that self-realization is more of an ongoing goal. The most important goal to me still remains love, but my ongoing goal that will most likely continue for the rest of my life is self-realization in every situation I am put in including love.

Michelle P said...

I think that ultimately in the long run, the primary goal I have for myself (like many others that have already commented) is some version of being perfectly content. I guess in a few ways that ties in with self-realization as well, in the sense of knowing where one's heart lies and how passionate one is when it comes to various things (aspirations, career, etc.) Being content is a huge determinant in how people lead their lives, affecting attitudes and decisions. I believe that my goal is ethical; I want to strive for something that is important to me, as long as that doesn't harm or affect others in a negative way.

Liz Velez said...

My ultimate goal I would have to say is power in terms of having control over my career. Being able to call the shots without worrying about losing a paycheck, a house, etc and in essence marching to the beat of my own drummer. This is my goal because I don't like being told what to do or how to do it because I'm pretty obstinate and think my way is best, at least for me if not in general. I know that sounds pretty arrogant, but I feel that as long as I don't dictate to others how they should live or do things (when it is not my place) then it's not really arrogance, just preferring to do things in one's own way.

It can be ethical to want power, it all depends on why you want that power and how you want to use it. In my case I simply want to be in charge of myself, not necessarily others. If I somehow manage to get into a position of power (which would probably never happen) I like to believe that I would use it to help people to the best of my ability. So in part, my belief that power can be used ethically is part of why I desire it.

I find it hard to say what is most valuable though, as all of those things have extreme value and, while not at odds with each other, are difficult to pursue simultaneously. In fact, those things listed relate in some way to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I don't subscribe to Maslow's theory about this, but Maslow's theory states you need to satisfy the needs at the bottom (physical, safety, love) before you can move on to self-esteem and self-actualization.

I think Maslow's full of it, but that was what popped into my head when I read the question.

Jackie Northacker said...

I think a lot of people who are confused to what life is all about have trouble identifying what their grand goal in life is. Often times, people assume that to have love, happiness, and power you need money or fame. But I think that idea is all wrong. Yes, a lot of money does make living easier, but it doesn’t provide the paths to really understanding what life is all about.

That is why I would say my grand goal in life is to be happy. Happiness provides some of the best things in life. I think if you are happy you can attain self-realization, wisdom, love, and even power. People as well as society, respond better to those who are content with life and have optimistic attitudes. Many struggle their entire lives with the idea of what COULD make them happy. Those people who live this way often never truly understand what life is all about. To me, if I’m not happy, it just means something needs to change. Of course I’m not always content with my life. I struggle to find optimism in times of doubt and sadness. However, that is why happiness is the most valuable goal someone could have. To be able to be happy even if your entire world has collapsed around you, is to have the greatest power. I think happiness and self-realization truly go together. What good is anything in your life if you aren’t happy? It is completely ethical to be happy. Every human in this world deserves to be happy, it is a fundamental right as a person. Most of the time problems arise in society because someone or something is taking away a person’s right to happiness and contentment in life. I don’t think because it is ethical is why I desire it. I desire it simply because I know if I’m happy, that my life is worth living and I’m able to spread that good feeling to those around me.

beth said...

I've always had a great deal of difficulty identifying what I want most out of life. I often find myself alternating between a variety of desires; one day, I could want love above all else; another, fame or fortune. However, more recently, I feel self-realization to be my ultimate goal. As I recognize the fact that I actually understand very little about myself, I become more and more aware that the only way to achieve anything in life is to reach some sort of self-realization. I feel like with that comes everything else -- love, the ability to bring about social change, wisdom, financial and career success, etc.

Right now, I want more than anything to be aware of myself. I want to be able to figure out exactly what kind of people to surround myself with, how I need to deal with situations, how to face reality, etc. I feel like I need some sort of philosophy to live by. I need self-realization to get there.

Although a goal like this may seem outwardly selfish, I actually think its the complete opposite. I feel like being aware of who you are affects the relationships you have with others, therefore their emotions, as well. It is undoubtedly ethical to be self-aware, because if you are not, you'll just end up hurting yourself and many of the people you associate with.

Kevin said...

I have one grand goal in life, and I’ve had the same goal going back at least 5 years. And that’s to leave a lasting impact, to create Social Change and that’s far more important than anything else. Although, if I had to choose a second it would be love. But love is never a definite; it’s fleeting, intangible and changes over time. Love in a marriage of fifty years for example is different year fifty than it was year one. Not to say two people can’t go a whole lifetime loving each other, they certainly can. But that love, the feeling, the meaning attached to the word will change. I’m sure in my pursuit of social change and bettering the world I will inevitably find love. Finding someone while on your mission (once you decide what yours is) who has as much passion as you about the same grand pursuit, is better than settling for someone you meet in a coffee shop.

If there’s one problem with society it’s that as a whole we care only about our affect on the world in the near-term. Not to take into account what our actions might be 50 years from now is foolish, and can lead to major problems. Most people that I’ve met are selfish and don’t really care about the next generation. They’ll talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

Kevin said...

Every individual has their own perspective on how they view the world in which they live. And as I’ve learned, ones perception is their reality. We’ve been raised in a culture with a lot of crap. I think MTV and other outlets are partly to blame for screwing up an entire generation. I think more people would have a deeper perspective on life if they weren't bombarded with shit on TV and Radio from cradle to grave. We’re paralyzed from progressing because we’re medicated with shit. And in turn because of this they’re some people who forget they're people and think their superstars. Not realizing that most real superstars are in fact the smartest people and got to where they are through deep intellect. But it's open to perspective what makes one person a superstar. Is Lebron James a superstar or is Gandhi? I can give two fucks about Lebron or most televised sports for that matter. Mainly because I think it's been devised to distract people from real life and set up to give people well manufactured unattainable role models to look up and aspire to.

So in getting back to the original post I think the most important grand goal to me is social change, and enlightenment. I’ll first start by trying to get Jersey Shore cancelled, because people say they watch it because it’s funny to watch the cast. I've personally never watched an episode, but others doing so support fake people who are slightly retarded and monetarily benefit from your viewing and time. This subconsciously leads others to believe they can act the same way and achieve the same. Fame is at the bottom of the list if these grand goals had ethical values attached to them. The greatest deed is done when the person doing it gets no recognition whatsoever, but just does it because it's the right thing to do.

Malcolm Harper said...

I believe that the reason it is such a difficult task for human beings to name their grand goal in living is because we are a species that have thoughts and ideals that are constantly changing and adapting as we encounter new events in our lives. People may set personal goals for themselves such as one day having a happy family with a big house and nice car because these ideals are portrayed to the mass public through the images and shows we watch on the television. But through all of the messages and images we receive from the television, I see the underlining message to be that each character is striving to find their own state of personal happiness. People’s motives are also driven by their desire to obtain a grand capital for themselves which leads to what the NY Times article talked about how people would be willing to subject themselves to becoming tools of the institution. Nobody would be willing to put in more effort into their jobs if the outcome of their troubles wasn’t a monetary compensation because with the money they obtain, they are able to purchase items that will lead them to their own state of happiness.
In the different things that we pursue as individuals, at this point in my life it seems to me that wisdom is most important to me right now. This can either be due to the fact that I am a student currently or possibly because I have recently hit another milestone in my life by turning twenty. From what I have experienced so far in my life, gaining knowledge about your situation and being able to look at it from somebody else’s is a sign of wisdom. I believe that when you are able to analyze situations from multiple perspectives you will make decisions that will not only put your ideals first, but the ideals and values of others.

Brandon said...

Out of all choices to make throughout the course of our lives, very few things are harder to identify than our ultimate goal. As is the case with most of the choices, life goals such as love, fame, or power all seem to be dictated by forces outside of what one can immediately control. For love, there needs to be a mutual connection, power you need others to submit to you willingly, and fame is almost a stroke of luck.

My goal in life has always been to simply be happy, and the simplest way for me to do that is to escape, escape from certain social responsibility, escape from society, find peace and happiness either alone or with those you truly care about. One doesnt have to necessarily live by themselves in a remote area, just find a way to live in peace without constraints. This internal isolation can lead you to happiness.

In terms of ethics, escape is definately less ethical than other choices because you are in no way helping others or society, but in terms of doing no harm, I don't see a more realistic way to accomplish that goal. Anyone in a capatilistic society is inherently trying to climb up, pulling others down in the process, so to escape is to quit climbing.

Atkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Atkin said...

I thought about this question for a while, because there are a lot of things in my life that I actively pursue — intelligence, honor, pride, adaptability and confidence to name a few biggies. But, speaking philosophically, the most valuable thing to pursue is truth. Truth is so essential. In any sense of the word, truth breeds intelligence, rationality and logic. It helps people make their own, personally relevant educated decisions. I value it so much, and I think it shows. Rarely do I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to lie, even social or work situations. I tell my boss the real reasons I want to take off from work because I feel that he will respect my honesty. And I always tell my friends how exactly how I feel about their actions. As I'll assume everyone has been, I've been lied to, talked about behind my back, manipulated and strung along. I've learned that honestly, though maybe harsh at first, is exponentially better than any of those. Because that's how life is. Maybe people would be better at dealing with adverse situations if they were better trained to deal with constant blatant honestly in their lives. Because sometimes it seems people in our society can't handle the truth.

Hopping back to our advertising discussion in class, because I know I was arguing with Prof. Good a little bit on the subject of lying and I want to clear this up. Allowing companies to spoon feed us untruths is bad. I agree—it breeds a culture of lies and makes us think that lying is okay across the board. After all, our politicians, advertisers, even our journalists do it. But what I was trying to say in class was that we can't just grumble, talk about how bad it is and sneer at cereal commercials when they come on. Conversely, we can't go out and rally that all these entities stop lying. It's unrealistic. It's unrealistic from a business standpoint, a political standpoint, and a cultural standpoint. But it's also unrealistic because absolute truth is unrealistic. From a professional standpoint, we have to pick our battles one at a time. Same goes for personal standpoints. Because even though we should always strive for truth, we need to realize that lies will always slip out of our mouths. And that's okay, but if we could all expand our thresholds for truth, I think we'd not only be more educated, happier, and able to deal with the realities of life, but we'd all be more ethical people.

I wouldn't say that truth necessarily equals righteousness, nor would I say that untruthfulness equals wrongdoing. But I would say that the ability to accept and appreciate truth makes you more likely to make ethical decisions. Because let's face it — lots of decisions made that are considered unethical are based off of lies. And I think we can find that through being true to others and true to ourselves, it can be easier to achieve all the other things we pursue in life — Intelligence, honor, pride...anything.

Atkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Atkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Atkin said...

I hate blogger. SO GLITCHY

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.