Reflections on Our Reflections

We're about halfway through the trip now, and it seems fitting to pause and reflect on what we're learning and try to pull some ideas together. During our first class discussion, our professors introduced us to several ways of thinking about ethics, such as the utilitarian perspective, which holds that we ought to strive for the greatest good for the greatest number, and Kant’s idea that we ought to treat people as ends in themselves and never as instruments to achieve our own ends. We've been struggling to decide how we feel about these value systems and to articulate the reasoning behind our own ethical commitments and instincts.

We talked a lot about Kant and treating people as instruments early in the course because the first two plays we saw, Art and Hedda Gabler, involved very transparent attempts on the part of some characters to control others. We discussed reasons why characters might want to control others, such as Marc’s sense that he is becoming obsolete as he ages, in Art, and Hedda’s desire to drive Løvborg back to a place of instability so that she will have company at the brink, in Hedda Gabler. The theme of control came back in The Tempest, and we debated whether Prospero had the right to control other characters because he had superior insight.

We've generally wanted to respect people's right to make their own decisions free from manipulation, but that commitment ran smack into utilitarianism in last night's production of The Children, which featured retired nuclear engineers who were debating whether to go back to the plant where they used to work. The plant has broken down after a freak earthquake, and one of the retired engineers feels a duty to go back to the plant to help shut it down so that the young engineers who are currently working there can leave and get away from the radiation. Another of the engineers does not want to go back. The utilitarian perspective said that the old engineers should go back and relieve the younger ones in order to save the most years of life--one student even said they should be forced to do so--while the Kantian perspective said that all of the characters should get to make up their own minds.

Another common theme in several of the plays has been sexual assault. The Rover included multiple scenes of attempted rape, and the issue also came up in Hedda Gabler, The Tempest, and An Inspector Calls. We've debated and largely condemned the “it was the time period” argument, but we can't ignore the way that influenced the play’s treatment of the issue. For instance, in “The Rover,” the characters’ main objection to the attempted rapes is that the woman involved is upper class--and, indeed, the women do not challenge this attitude. We've been disappointed with how often sexual assault has appeared in the plays, but we have largely agreed that this is a byproduct of sexual assault being common in society and that theater can be a positive way to call attention to problems in society and start conversations about them.

Meanwhile, we've also been observing British culture. Being present for a Tube strike emphasized to us just how dependent the British are on public transportation--without the Tube, the sidewalks were flooded with a river of pedestrians, and hordes of people gathered around bus stops. We've also noticed that the British are, on average, thinner than Americans. They're not healthier in every way, though--they smoke much more than we do. My favorite thing about the Brits, though, is how quiet they are. London is huge, but it's nothing like New York. Drivers almost never use their horns, and stores and restaurants don't blare their music into the street. It's a good place for a Paideia 450 class--we can hear ourselves think.

Linnea at "An Inspector Calls"
London: busy, but quiet