Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…)

appeasementFrom Socrates forward, we’ve asked:

Does everything happen for a reason?

Am I really in control of my actions?

Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?

Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one:  Is my life guided by free will or determinism?  Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.

What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.

High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

Cookie

The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.

Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leadingBad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung up to WWII.  There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen.  A voice in our head asks “Was World War II determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.

Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.

“Should American presidents take the lesson of  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to heart?”

Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students  are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.

Download Full Lesson Here

Author: Dan Fouts

Since 1993 I've taught AP government, philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area. I served as a member of the committee on pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy through the American Philosophical Association from 2012-2016 and am co-founder of the Living Library project, a professional development program through which teachers digitize and share artifacts of their best ideas. Additionally, I instruct an online course- Socrates in the Social Studies - which is designed to help middle/high school teachers integrate Big Questions into their classrooms.

7 thoughts on “Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…)”

  1. The determinism “versus” free will debate is not a “big question”, it is a mind-trapping paradox. Do you have the “big answer” to go with it? If not, then you’re just spreading the infection of the hard determinist’s fatalism. People like Sam Harris and Gregg Caruso use this “big question” to undermine concepts like moral and legal responsibility. Do we really want to do that?

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    1. Hello Mr. Edwards, I think I just had a different interpretation than you. I thought Justin was actually arguing for free will and that leaders had the moral responsibility to make choices. To your other point about free will/determinism not being an important question, I respectfully disagree. In philosophy we talk about the different perspectives of free will and determinism in how we treat other people. I help them understand that when we are treated harshly by others it is often instructive to ask the question “Is the person who is speaking to me operating under complete free will or are there factors influencing how this person is responding/acting towards me?” Often, we either take one extreme or the other. We might say, for example, the person is acting completely free and is 100% responsible– but then issues such as mental illness, disabilities, family situation, abuse come up and kids realize that there are factors which intrude on a person’s free choices. I find these discussions to be imminently important and the question more so. So, I guess on a personal level I find great value here. Thank you for responding. I appreciate you provoking the thoughts.

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    2. I wholly agree with the importance of looking at the background causes of behavior. But all of the value of determinism derives from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. Many people are thrown for a loop when it comes to the logical fact of causal inevitability. Academic philosophy poses the question in such a way that many people are taken in by the metaphor. The reification of causation as a force of nature leads most people to view it as a constraint, something that robs us of our choices and our control over our own destiny. It takes a subtle insight to realize that we are the things that, by our own choices, causally determine what becomes inevitable. (You may find my blog post on this helpful).

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    3. I do see what you are saying yet the vast majority of high school students I work with aren’t shrinking violets, and tend to launch vigorous defenses of free will, save a few who stick to determinism but have no answer for the moral responsibility issue. It gets them going, that’s for sure, and is one of their favorite topics. I’m just ecstatic when they get excited about something that makes them think!! Thanks again for engaging with this.

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    4. Okay. Do feel free to make copies of any of my posts on the subject for those who get stuck. Basically, it works like this:
      (A) Because I decide for myself according to my own purpose and my own reasons, the choice is of my own free will.
      (B) Because I decide for myself according to my own purpose and my own reasons, the choice is causally determined.
      Both facts are simultaneously true. Thus, free will and determinism are compatible.

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  2. I was in Dr. Pardieck’s class when you spoke about your blog and went over this particular post. When I got back to my apartment, my roommate asked me how I interpreted a prompt for an upcoming English essay she has; the prompt is “where you are, is who you are.” This really got me thinking, as this prompt could be interpreted many different ways both literal (like where you physically are) or more philosophical (like where you’re at in your journey throughout life). I then put this prompt into a social studies based perspective on how it could be discussed and interpreted by students. I thought this would be a great question to ask about world leaders and the decisions they made that had long lasting effects, like is Hitler who he was based on the interpretation on where he was during World War II?

    Thank you again for coming in and speaking to our class. It was great to have the perspective of a dedicated teacher who has been in the profession for so long,

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    1. Thanks Ariana! I think what you wrote here is really interesting. You’re already seeing connections and that is a great sign. Students are going to be really lucky to get you as a teacher.

      I tend to think that once you start thinking about big questions,there’s really no turning back.

      Please keep in touch. I plan to work on this blog for eight years before I retire. I’m not kidding. LOL i’d love for recommendations on things to write about, so if you ever have some ideas shoot them over to me. Thanks again

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