This week in my Freshman Comp class, we staged a trial for George Orwell (as one does). After a brief history lesson on Imperialism and the cunning use of flags by the British, followed by a reading “Shooting an Elephant,” I asked the class to pick a side on the following issue: is Orwell (or the narrator) justified in shooting the elephant? Being 18-years old and reluctant to do anything, many of them didn’t have a strong opinion yet somehow managed to split into roughly even sides. I pulled the four students who contribute the most in class and made them the jury. The remaining two groups were tasked to debate, defending or condemning Orwell accordingly, as well as finding the flaws in the opposing side’s argument.
Surprisingly, the students really committed. We used a modified Lincoln-Douglas format (thanks to all the debaters on my high school speech team who let me watch them despite my being a drama girl). I won’t say that the arguments were stellar–both sides latched on to one or two things and ignored other evidence. The jury had a hard time even with that, in part because one of the member was a Iraq veteran who had trouble with this argument which dominated several exchanges:
“It’s an elephant. Put it in a cage.”
“Why do they need an elephant anyway? They had no business having an elephant.”
“It’s like if a cougar bit you, you’d kill that cougar.”
(I have greatly modified the grammar and word choice hear to protect those who haven’t had to talk to 18-year olds recently.)
The veteran had issue with how limited and single-minded the students were as to the necessities and customs of another culture. When the jury gave their decision, he basically told them that they were just as bad as the British for being unable and unwilling to consider alternative cultures. The class started booing him, clicking, and hissing. I defused the situation by making a joke and then redirected to the homework assignment (which made them boo, click, and hiss at me).
While I didn’t want to make an issue of it, I did agree with the student, as I told him after class. I am frequently shocked at the same things. I am not judging the students for not knowing how other cultures work–I am still perplexed by cultures that eat dry rub barbeque (sauce, for crying in the mud, sauce!)–but I am surprised that they don’t care and refuse to attempt to contextualize things outside the realm of their experience. What a sad world that would be if everyone thought that way.
Too many do already.
Although I made a point of noting how important it is to consider cultural and historical context and tried to impart the point the veteran was making in a less confrontational way, I know I lost them. This is one of those times I get so frustrated with teaching. I am fine with them not caring about MLA or complex sentence structure. When they tell me literature is lame, I don’t take it to heart. But when it comes to basic things like curiosity, critical thinking, and compassion (unless it is directed at them when they haven’t/don’t want to do the assignment), I am at a loss. How do I avoid discouragement?
When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.