Teaching Notes

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Under "Links of Interest. . . " on this blog, you'll find a poem by W. H. Auden titled "Musee des Beaux Arts." Before midnight Monday, April 21, please post a comment as to how the poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others.

Also, please examine the news photos (not the feature ones) linked below. Do you consider them empathetic?



Steph Black said...

This poem beautifully discusses the problem of feeling empathy for others. One of my favorite stanzas reads: “ The Old Masters; how well, they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place.” To me, this means that its human nature to experience things differently. The poem continues on to describe “miraculous birth” that children might not want to happen. As people, we must adapt to feel empathetic in these situations. We must also understand that one event could have multiple perspectives.

In regards to the photographs, I think the level of empathy varies depending on the particular photo. In some, it is clear that the subjects are aware of the photo being taken. In these cases, though the picture may be powerful and almost painful to look at, I believe the photographer was empathetic in conferring with the subjects beforehand. In others, especially war pictures, I think the audience is considered more than the subjects. In these cases, the photographer is doing nothing to help the situation nor are they making sure the subjects are ok with being portrayed in the light they are given.

In journalism, empathy is important because we have to keep in mind the perspective of those we’re writing about and not just that solely our readers. Without empathy, we can appear heartless and might sacrifice the lives or livelihood of innocent people as a result.

Shelby Rose said...

W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” puts Breughel’s illustration into words as he describes the passerby’s lack of empathy for the falling Icarus. In the painting, the only sign of tragedy is the boy’s legs sticking out of the water. However, none of the other people in the painting notice or care to pay attention to the boy who fell from the sky. As Auden states, someone probably heard him scream and the people on the boat probably heard a splash as he hit the water, but no one moved to help the poor boy. This lack of empathy continues to plague humanity in the modern world. If Icarus fell from the sky and into the Hudson River you could count on reading about it in the next day’s paper, but I highly doubt that anyone would stop what he or she were doing to help or alert the authorities. On the same note, something tragic recently happened in my hometown. The Dominoes burned down in a shopping plaza near my home and, unfortunately, a recent high school graduate lost his life in the fire. I learned about this from the multitude of posts on Facebook that shared the news story with awe that the plaza could have suffered a third fire. Instead of expressing sorrow or empathy for the young man that lost his life, most of the comments expressed local peoples’ relief that the Dunkin Donuts next door was still standing. Although I’m not a typically empathetic person, I was appalled that this was the reaction of my community to a truly tragic loss. They seemed to turn their attention away from the horrific death in the same way that the people of Breughel’s painting turned away from Icarus.
This lack of empathy seems to be plaguing most of the human population without us even noticing. For instance, the First Place picture in the World Press Photo of the Year Contest shows a group of men in Gaza City carrying the bodies of two dead children. While this image draws a deep feeling of empathy from the audience, I can’t help but question whether or not the photographer has any empathy for the deceased children. Would an empathetic person have been able to capture this extremely emotional picture and then ethically publish it? An even bigger question I have regarding the picture, is how could the World Press ethically grant a prize for the capture of human suffering? The photo itself is so powerful and emotionally charged that it manages to stir something within its audience, but awarding the photographer for simply standing by does not seem ethical to me. Taking photos of human suffering, although they have a strong impact, seems more unsympathetic then ignoring the tragic event. In some ways I think the photographers in these instances are exploiting the suffering of these people in the same way that news networks retell tragic tells as much as possible to gain viewership. It is this lack of empathy that makes most of the journalistic work from today unethical and, ultimately, disturbing.

Chelsea Candelario said...

W.H. Auden's poem displays the lack of empathy for/from others. As human beings, we are accustomed to knowing about death, but we can never fully understanding how to act towards it. When it relates to us, we express feelings, but for others, it may come as distance.
Tragedy happens all the time and yet some of us choose to ignore it. Just like the poem, people go about their business and let others deal with their own problems. While others make it their mission to help through the hardest of times.
With the photographs, I'm conflicted. These photographs show a great deal of empathy. Although some of these photographs present death and turmoil, it's providing a larger message. It's showing people what's going on around the world. It's making people aware that the world isn't perfect. So if it was the photographer's goal to get people to realize and start a open discussion of making the world a better place, then they showed a great amount of empathy.
However, at the time of distress with death and war, did the people in the photos give consent to getting their photo taken? Did the photographs ignore people's cries and sadness in order to gain such a high achievement? Some of the photos showed children dying and people getting hurt and more can be done if people take a step back and not be quick to gather photos, but to take action. How would we ever know whether these photographers wanted to send a message or get an award?

Dana Leuffen said...

This poem tastefully describes humans nature to have a lack of empathy towards others, mainly in situations where we need it the most. Lines such as "everything turns away" depicts how as humans we tend to ignore and turn our heads away from the things that truly matter and things that require us to be empathetic. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another human being can not only benefit the other person, but can benefit you as well as it can give you another viewpoint and a different perspective on something you may not have realized before. As humans we should always strive to be empathetic to benefit ourselves and the people around us.
The level of empathy, varies from photo to photo. Some pictures obviously are taken to evoke a certain emotion or feeling in the viewers while others I personally were just taken to be a "cool shot" and not have much meaning behind it. For a photo be successful in my opinion is one that makes viewers feel a sense of empathy for the people or thing in the image and want to know more than just what is viewable in the still image. Using photography to evoke empathy in others is a valuable and powerful tool and can be used to raise awareness to certain subjects and give light to things that people may not have known about prior.

Chrissy Borella said...

I think W.H. Auden’s poem uses a lot of juxtaposition to describe a lack of empathy. The line, “when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting for the miraculous birth, there always must be children who did not specially want it to happen,” to me is a metaphor for just that—something that could be so incredibly significant to one life (birth), is unintentionally dismissed by another. The children lack the ability to comprehend what the aged value so greatly. In Auden’s description, it is a lack of empathy from an innocent source, children. This is an interesting way to look at the “problem” with empathy. It raises the concept that empathy is something we grow into versus something people either have or do not have.

Auden includes the story of Icarus, where the ploughman, the sun and the expensive ship all do not recognize the boy’s falling from the sky as something incredible. Instead, the ploughman does not see it as an important failure. The sun, Icarus’ original cause of falling, continues to shine and the ship continues on its voyage to where it had to go. I think Auden is personifying the situation and using all of the elements to further exemplify this inability to empathize.

I see Auden’s perspective on empathy shifting at this point from a concept that comes as people grow to instead an attribute that people either have or are incapable of having. The ploughman seems to be compared to two inanimate objects that are inevitably unable to empathize. Auden also describes the ship as both expensive and delicate but still in need of carrying on. To me, this is a tragic phrase that describes this potential that is not being tapped into. The ploughman has the tools to emphasize with Icarus however, is incapable of stopping just as the ship must continue.

Many of these photos evoked empathy from me—downright had me tearing. I couldn’t imagine however, ever being the photographer observing the atrocity and then documenting it for all to see. I understand the argument that showing this to the world will hopefully move people to make changes but at the same time, documenting a picture of torture to me seems the opposite of empathetic. You see the shadow of the whip in the background. This is a powerful photo, but what about the physical presence of shooting it? Was the photographer thinking about the person being tortured or just the audience’s reaction?

Jessica clary said...

The poem by W.H. Auden is a great reflection of todays society, even though written quite some time ago. People today see so many tragic things happening but do nothing about it. The lack of empathy the lives inside of people is kind of unsettling because most people are raised to recognize a problem and do something about it. The poem describes the little boy falling from the sky into the water and no one helped him, they heard the splashes and still no one helped him. Much like today people don't feel the need to go and help someone right away, unless there is someone already helping. The pictures while beautifully taken, are most likely popular because they evoke some type of feelings within the people looking at them. I know for me I felt saddened by some of them. Feeling empathy is being able to "feel" for someone else because you have been in their shoes before. I believe the empathy for each picture is on a case by case basis, people could feel empathetic for the people in them but others for pictures they may not.

Brittani Graves said...

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” skillfully describes the inability for people to empathize or even realize when an individual is need of a helping hand. In simple situations as said in the poem, “while someone else is eating or opening a window or dully walking along…” someone could be unknowingly suffering but people won’t take the time notice. People today seem to not want to care about others, afraid to empathize because others negative energy might bring him or her down. The painting portrays people passing by, Icarus clearly in need of help but people continued on their ways despite knowing he was in need of help. One of the biggest ethical dilemmas in such a situation is having people know there is something they need to do in order to help another but instead of helping they walk by as if nothing is happening. No one will stand out from the rest to make a difference. The need to conform so strong no one is their own person anymore.
Each one of the photos tells a certain story. The pain and suffering in some are more intense than others and one can’t help but feel empathetic. The facial expressions, full of pain and suffering, the need for someone to help him or her but despite their cries so loud no one wants to hear them. One who can’t empathize when looking at such photos may not be able to feel at all, or stop them from feeling because the feeling of sadness and remorse scare them. If only people were able to learn to handle such feelings one could say people would be able to be more empathetic, at least hope to be.

Kasey mcGrory said...

The way that I interpret empathy is placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, and feeling a variety of emotional states in their perspective. The poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden encompasses the theme of empathy in a really powerful way. Auden uses descriptive detail in the poem to set a very vivid scene for the reader. The visuals in this piece help make someone empathetic, because of the tragedy the scene presents. The poem also states the struggle between those who put themselves first, and those who go out of their way to do good for others. This can make you feel empathy because they can relate and connect to one of those groups of people, and see the struggle that the others go through.

So many people in today’s society don’t appreciate what they have, and look down on others who don’t have as much as they do. I feel that because of this notion of “I’m better then you,” a lot of people don’t care about being empathetic. The media presents how materialistic items are the ideals of the world, and has become a normal thought process, especially for the younger generation.

The photos were also very powerful, but not all of them made me feel empathy. The moments that I felt were sincere, and candid I could connect with. Some of these included the poverty picture and the close up of the woman in tears. Genuine things make my heart feel empathy, and a lot of those pictures were raw and genuine.

Abbott Brant said...

The poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy because human empathy itself poses a problem. As humans I think we use empathy as a defining characteristic that sets us apart from other species, or apart from other humans as being “good” as opposed to less empathetic, “bad” people. But as discussed in the poem's meaning, Auden wrote “In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” I think this intoxication he is speaking about is the the human ability to truly believe we are something we are not, simply because it makes us feel better. But as the poem starts, “how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place.” The “it” taking place is the realities that we know are occuring, and we know are part of human life, but that we distract ourselves from with the numbing activities of everyday; so much so that, when we do come face to face with these terrifying circumstances, having a understanding of their occurance but not the practiced emotional capacity to handle them, we do nothing and show no empathy. If not directly impacted, it is difficult in this way to have empathy toward another's suffering because there isn't a tangible suffering to be shared with the onlooker.

Like a lot of people said about the photos, there are varying levels of empathy when looking at them as determined by what the photo actually is. Like Jessica said, I think part of empathy and feeling the pain of another is being able to “take a walk” in their shoes. While some of these pictures I could indeed place myself in the photograph and see myself in that similar circumstance, some of the images I could not, for whatever reason. So while I did feel saddened looking at some of these photos, I realized that sadness does not directly translate to empathy.

RogerG said...

Auden's poem points out how difficult it is to feel empathy to those in pain when your own life is skipping along whimsically. I feel this is especially difficult in the modern, interconnected world, since we are made aware (thanks to JOURNALISTS) that there are many people suffering horrendously at all times. In the poem, people continued on with their lives despite others' suffering. They did not feel the sufferer's pain. In the modern world, if you were purely empathetic, you would be in a constant state of distress. There almost needs to be limits to empathy in this world. What good would it serve for someone in Kansas to feel empathy towards the 10,000 who have died in South Sudan since the beginning of the year. It's not like they can really do anything to HELP. All feeling empathy would accomplish in this situation would be to expand the pain.

I don't know why the picture taken in Palestine won. It's obviously been photoshopped to hell, and therefore isn't a news photograph. Looks like a still from a video game.

But more to the point, I feel that the pictures are liable to produce empathy in the viewer. The news photographer most likely had to steel themselves emotionally in order to take these pictures, perhaps even nullifying their empathy. Let's hope that the reason they did this, however, was because they ultimately empathized with their subjects, and wanted to get their story out there.

Jenny Nectar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natalie said...

This poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others by juxtaposing extraordinary events with ordinary ones. However, in the end, both of these events blend into one. He talks about a miraculous birth and then a tragic death, and basically sums up human suffering, and how it is simply just a part of life. But life is more than just suffering, there are many times where we thrive, and it is a balance of the two that creates a well rounded life. I have a tattoo on my back that says "Find the hidden harmony." It is a phrase I came up with myself that basically says there is always an in between; Just like finding a harmony in between two notes. Life has a bit of dissonance as well as consonance, and if you have patience and listen, you will find your balance, or that hidden harmony.

I really, really like this poem. In a very calm, simple way it talks about how life simply must go on, despite the hardships and tragedies in everyday life. It makes feeling empathy for others hard at times, because we all have our own troublesome lives to deal with; some more than others. And with the media constantly delivering us news about horrific events taking place around the world, we almost become numb to the emotional effect it should have on us.

Empathy is a human need. The ability to understand is something that I look for in the people I surround myself with. Even though my friends will never completely understand me and the things I am going through, if they are there to listen and comprehend, or even relate/feel for me in some small way, it truly makes me appreciate their being and their presence.

As for the photos, they are beautifully tragic, but would an empathetic person be able to take, let's say the second prize photograph with the Syrian opposition fighters torturing a captured man? If I were witnessing that, I wouldn't be able to take that picture. Anything less than seeing that in person would not be able to hold as much power and emotion, for me at least. Something about taking pictures of human suffering doesn't settle well with me. It might be because in a sense we are taking this event and making it an art form, where people are being awarded prizes. Or it could be that I feel that these photographers are exploiting these people's sufferings.

Alexa Gold said...

The poem demonstrates how the same level of emotion can be felt through big and small experiences. Empathy takes a while to develop. Some never develop it. Empathy is crucial to being mature in character. A war hero can feel the same level of sadness as a mother who lost her child. The idea is not to compete with each other. To not out do one another's stories. Being able to listen and understand is vital in becoming a fuller person. Though I'm not quoting the poem--1) because I'm running late 2) because I have a hard time dissecting poetry--I think empathy relates to ethics when it comes to publishing too much or too little with respects to families of victims. Remember that NY Times bloody photo of the person in the street? I'm still debating over whether that was a warning bell or crossing-the-line. Empathy allows us to step out of our own shoes and place ourselves in the "souls" of others. As for the photographs, I think you would need to point out one or two specifically. The photo of Ai Wei Wei made me so happy because he's a hero of mine. The photos of dead or starving people? They're up for debate. Where were they published? Why? I do think a lot of violent pictures remind people that things aren't so shiny in other countries. Sometimes, horrifying pictures bring more context to an article than the article itself. It's all about the way you look at it/listen to it. Empathy is when "you" and "I" becomes "we."

Kaycia Sailsman said...

The poem relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others by showing us that we as people lack empathy. The people in the poem treats the tragedy as an everyday thing only stopping to acknowledge it and moving on; cause it's a way of life. The poem states that "how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, but for him it was not an important failure. This quote I think illustrates how society works today when it comes to tragedy of all sorts. There are some that have a macro effect on people such as the world trade center attack and the numerous combat deaths in the Afghanistan war. I feel that if things don't personally affect a person then they are least likely to have empathy towards a situation. It's not like the feeling won't be there, it will be received just not for a long period of time.

Personally, I consider them empathetic because each picture showed a different person which tells a different story. The feeling and emotions are all in the photos presented. Even if I don't see a subject, and it's just a photo of something powerful; my empathizes would go towards those who would be impacted by the after math the photo is alluding to.

Gianna Canevari said...

To me, this poem has two parts. The first seems to be about how, as generations are born and then die, there is a circular and repetitive way of life in which the knowledgeable older generations have the ability to empathize and understand the feelings of others while the children have a different perspective.

I think the second part of the poem is more aptly understood with the mention of the Pieter Brueghel’s painting of his commentary on the fall of Icarus. The lower right corner pictures the boy, Icarus, who fell from his flight in the sky because he ignored his father’s instructions. As the poem states, everything turns away, as if the two people and the ship did not possess the desire to empathize or sympathize with the boy. They leisurely choose to be ignorant of the failure of Icarus, and the ship ‘sailed calmly on.’ The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important distinction - especially for journalists. Sympathy is offering consolation and acknowledging another’s struggles while empathy is the ability to understand another’s struggles because you have experienced the same struggles. Often, when we mean sympathy, we use the word ‘empathy.’ Many of us have not known the struggles of someone who has experienced war, famine, natural disaster, tragedy or destruction, therefore it is not possible for us to have empathy for the subjects of these photographs, try as we may.

As observers of these photos, as people who have (most likely) not felt what the subjects photographed have felt, we cannot accurately say we feel empathy for these subjects. As photojournalists and reporters, we should always try our best to sympathize with subjects we photograph and interview. The photos may thoroughly represent the pain and suffering that these people feel, and they may provide a window through which we can be exposed to the sad experiences of humanity, but until we have felt such magnitude of suffering, the photos can only do so much to be empathetic; we can only sympathize.

Andres Montoya said...

A quote that stuck with me from the poem is “Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure”. I think this last part in particular, for him it was not an important failure, really speaks volumes about the difficulties and problems of possessing true empathic feelings towards others. One simply does not care about other people’s woes or failures enough to share empathy, especially if they are very disconnected from the certain individual. Today’s society in America is very much an individualistic one where self-achievement is held at a higher priority than a collective group sharing emotions and goals, so people cannot find it in themselves to relate to strangers as well as possible. Thus, certain empathic messages and emotions are lost.

I don’t consider the pictures to be empathic. I feel as if empathy is something only experienced once you are in the same position as the one who is making you feel such a way. Photos can be altered, which many of them look like they have been, and that takes away from the emotional message that the actual scene in person had. Nothing can replicate or capture the intense fear, courage, or any other emotion that an individual shows in times of adversity. The chance for empathy is lost soon after the fact.

Andrew Lief said...

W. H. Auden’s poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts” relates to the problem of feeling empathy for others because of the problem that it ultimately causes. Auden wrote how there’s a little boy who fell and had no help, but nobody helped him. This relates to empathy and the world today because so many people have it ingrained in their minds that they shouldn’t help anyone unless there’s a scene around the problem.

People in society feel a sense of entitlement, which causes them to not help others. Since they feel superior, they don’t feel empathy towards others. Unfortunately, this takes place too often and causes people to be left alone during a time of crisis.

I find the news photos empathetic because they cause the viewer to become curious and want to know what’s taking place. This is a useful tool for photography because it allows people to become interested in the story and cause them to find out what’s going on.

Joe Nikic said...

W.H. Auden’s poem refers to the complicated subject of empathy. I believe it is complicated because, in my opinion, most people think of empathy as a trait that one can carry at all times. However, I consider empathy as a temporary emotion that we as humans can feel more than any other species. Some students in the class said this poem was representing our lack of empathy, but I believe that Auden is attempting to show his realization, through the painting, that empathy was only temporary. The end of the poem where he mentions the ship that needed to keep moving on despite seeing tragedy is a symbol to humanity needing to feel for the situation but still continue on with everyday life. Of course I could be totally wrong but I think Auden was deeper than just humanity’s lack of empathy.

Although I can see these images going both ways, I consider them empathetic. They are published in all of these different ways so that people who don’t understand the situation can try and relate to it. It’s a journalist’s job to report the truth and even if the photos are enhanced or exaggerated a little bit, it is because the journalist wants to evoke the right emotion in his or her viewers. The motivation for producing such images can vary depending on the journalist. It could either be to have a popular picture or present the truth. But in these instances I believe it is more about helping the uneducated become more educated on a subject.

Jen_Newman said...

My interpretation of W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” relating to the problem of feeling empathy for others was a regional lack of empathy. It reminded me of how Americans are towards the problems of the rest of the world. Since we are isolated physically from a lot of poverty and famine in the world, we tend to "turn away" while we naively live in our own world and pretend everything is fine. I think this idea is demonstrated in the stanza, "Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse; Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

With the photos, obviously some are more emotional than others. I felt the one with the dead children was the only picture that really bothered me in terms of lack of empathy. I understand that its strength can possibly impact a lot of people who see the photo, but at the same time these two children just died and the pain that the men are feeling in that moment now have to me immortalized.

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.