I realize that what is right in one situation may be wrong in another.
In some cultures, slurping soup is the sign of impending digestive joy and in others, avoiding direct eye contact shows respect. However, some actions are just plain wrong at all times.
Literature is an effective way to help students question the actions of fictional characters who make poor decisions. This questioning impacts the student, who may begin to put himself into the characters’ shoes. And we know that being in someone else’s shoes is sometimes more comfortable than confronting our own moral shortcomings. My favorite novel to use for the purpose of examining moral decision- making is John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent.
In brief, the main character, Ethan Allen Hawley, a good man, descends into a world of temptation, sorcery, crime, and moral bankruptcy when faced with the pressures from his family and society. In this story, a moral inversion occurs; that is, what we consider bad becomes good and what we think is good becomes bad. In current jargon we might call this moral inversion the spin, the spin we like to put on events and circumstances that we find uncomfortable.
Before my students opened the book, they had to take a quiz with 30 questions about moral decision- making.
For example, one question went like this:
If you found a wallet, full of money and credit cards, in a phone booth, what would you do?
For most of us, the answer is obvious. Contact the wallet’s owner.
Here are the types of answers that students shared:
- I would take the money out and then mail the wallet to the owner.
- I would keep the wallet and the money and mail the credit cards to the owner.
- I would return everything to the owner.
Here is the answer that stopped me cold, fifteen years ago:
- The wallet isn’t lost. It is found. Now it is mine.
I can even remember the student who said this. His answer chilled my soul. It was a perfect answer to hear before reading The Winter of Our Discontent. Bad is good, good is bad, lost is found.
The spin had begun.
But you can only imagine seeing the smug grin fade to an awkward grimace when I told him that the wallet lost in that phone booth had been my husband’s, on his way with my son to visit colleges in Arizona.