Rewind five years or so…
The setting: I needed a Big Question in government to teach about liberal and conservative views on the role of government, a topic that often generates intense debate. On one side are students who think government’s role should be limited and people should fix their own problems. On the other side are students insistent that government has a moral obligation to help citizens directly. From health care to welfare, from tax policy to social security, this fundamental disagreement on the role of government lurks beneath so many issues and even fuels much of the party polarization within Congress.
I knew that a Big Question lived somewhere but I just hadn’t taken the time to slow down and think it through enough. Needing an inspiration, I visited one of the my favorite websites to motivate Big Questions– the UW Center for Philosophy for Children. (We learned about this website in a previous post and also used it in conjunction with Big Questions to teach about bravery, freedom, free will and determinism, security v. liberty in a time of war, and the Constitutional Convention.)
I looked around a bit aimlessly at first and then stumbled upon one of my all-time favorite children stories: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, which I remembered covered the theme of help and generosity. Seeing connection possibilities but not being able to articulate anything specific yet, I read it again, theis time with a fresh set of eyes and a mission.
Half-way into the story, I saw something.
Here is a spirited attempt to recapture my jumbled throughs at the time:
I thought about the interactions between the boy and the tree. The tree keeps giving things to the boy. The boy receives these gifts throughout his life. The tree seems to be so generous and the boy seems to like taking things. Maybe the boy is giving a sense of purpose to the tree and the tree is happy as a result. I thought about the whole idea of giving and receiving help, which then led me to start thinking about whether or not it is okay to rely on people or instead to rely on ourselves. What is the more honorable way to live? I wondered.
Then, slowly, connections to government surfaced…
People rely on their government to give them lots of things too. Welfare, education, health care…and sometimes the more government gives, the more dependent people feel and the more they expect to be served. Is this bad? Good? What about personal responsibility?
After stewing on the story for a while and drafting questions, one revealed itself: Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?
Then, I just let the question sit in my mind for a few days– all the while evaluating whether or not it was compelling enough to use. I thought about some of the criteria.
Big Questions embrace multiple perspectives: The question asks for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response on its face but actually requires a very nuanced understanding of the issue and demands that students consider many different perspectives in their answers: from a wealthy or poor citizen point of view, for example, or from an urban or rural perspective, or an owner of a small business. Students learn very quickly that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just won’t suffice and that the answer is way more complex than it appeared.
Big Questions beg for clear definitions: The word “help” needs to be unpacked. What exactly qualifies as help? Can two reasonable people disagree as to what constitutes help? What form must help take to be called ‘help’? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’ and how is that different from direct help?
I knew this was a good one because the more I thought of it, the more confusing it became. That is always a good sign!
This was a success story to be sure but there’s a brutal reality to Big Questions– unless we’re patient and truly slow down our instruction, we’ll struggle mightily to find space for them in our curriculum.
But it can be done.
The next challenge was to figure out how to use the question in creative ways. In the next post I’ll share how to integrate it and brainstorm some other possible applications.