From 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.
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 leading 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.
Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus: Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question.