Ethics, Narratives and Education

Can narratives show us some ways to improve classrooms, when information is everywhere?


In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
Eric Hoffer

As soon as someone identifies themselves as a learner - especially for the first times as one - a whole universe is brought to life by all the knowledge and experiences they can suddenly foresee. As an example, search in your memories for the early days when you learned how to read and form words by understanding the logical use of certain letters and syllables. By looking at some ordinary objects, once you realized you could mentally name them in a new way and write down results such as chair or table, infinite possibilities were created in front of your eyes as you wondered how far this could go. Infinite possibilities were created as you asked yourself how many names of whatever your mind could reach you would successfully translate into words. Those infinite possibilities turned to be an intriguing and chaotic situation, until some time later when you could finally understand and dominate reasonably the dimensions that pervaded it.

This first example works very well not only because it is an interesting metaphor of the role of narratives in learning - as will be explained here - but also due to the fact that for many, it is the moment when you can start creating your own narratives as well. From there on out, the everyday life of a student will be composed by continuing narratives and rites of passage between the older and the newer ones. These changes tend to be soft when it comes to evolution through the first levels of primary education but they get harder once students face specialization in their careers, as a result of particular ethos and rationalities shaping the way information is passed on among different subjects and practices. This process finally reaches a peak when a student gets into university. Even more in countries like Brazil where instead of the American tradition of majors and minors a young adult has to decide for a specific career in Law or Engineering for example, and study almost exclusively the topics related to it.

Considering this context, the following discussion will propose reflections on how different approaches to the use of narratives in classes can lead students to different perceptions of both the content shown and the role of a professor in a wired world, where knowledge and information come from all directions. Moreover, I will focus on my experience comparing the particular aspects of how Ethics is taught for Business and Economics students at undergraduate level in a private university in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In Critical Terms for Literary Study (1), American literary critic J. Hillis Miller shows his vision for the concept of narrative:

There must be, first of all, an initial situation, a sequence leading to a change or reversal of that situation, and a revelation made possible by the reversal of the situation. Second, there must be some use of personification whereby character is created out of signs— for example, the words on the page in a written narrative, the modulated sounds in the air in an oral narrative. However important plot may be, without personification there can be no story-telling […] Third, there must be some patterning or repetition of key elements.

In this quote we can clearly see the distinctive elements which as a whole characterize a narrative: situation, character and form. Just like in the introductory metaphor of a child learning how to write, situation brings a place in time and space for each of the other elements. It is situation that shows to that child when and where they are the character in control of the forms that the writing process can assume.

According to an initial state and the way it is transformed throughout these dimensions, insights are created and then we have a common frame of reference showing that information was absorbed and executed. This can happen many times on a broader narrative and will constitute the narrative events, no matter if they are pursuit scenes in a movie or questions and answers in a judgement. To this extent, the aforementioned Ethics lectures are narrative events occurring in the 4-year-long narratives which Economics and Business undergraduate programmes constitute themselves. They are very similar in the sense that students from both programmes are subjected to nearly the same structure, responsible for ruling the content and the order of the subjects they have to take before graduating. First, the more theoretical fields of study just like Calculus and Algebra. Secondly, courses such as Finance or Business Strategy in which they apply the knowledge just gained in the first terms. The major difference between them is, however, in the fact that this structure is used to guide students and professors towards distinct goals. These goals are essentially defined by what kind of professional the efforts comprising each programme are aimed to create four years later.

In addition, the Ethics course starts in different moments at each school but in both cases there is already a major narrative going on. Thus, amplifying the challenges to efficiently introduce ethical concepts whilst also having to deal with two specific and potentially unfavorable scenarios: the lack of prior debate regarding ethical issues among Business third-year students or the strong moral opinions that many Economics freshmen formed beforehand, even if most of them did this by simply reviewing a few Utilitarian premises they had to accept one way or another in their first semester. Basically, what I have found is some kind of barrier to entry.

For the Economics students this is brought by the silent competition between concurrent theories. Having a philosopher as a professor in an Economics programme means that sometimes they will be the only one proposing certain approaches, whilst most of the others are piecing together mathematical models and similar assumptions that tend to appeal more to the average student, especially when they have just entered university. With the senior Business students the barrier is a bit different but it is still there, as the Ethics course is responsible for introducing methods and subjective discussions to students deeply used to objective answers. In both cases, if the professor is not cautious enough this course could be easily misunderstood as a stranger interrupting the narrative they originally chose to listen to.

Barriers of entry are hard to surpass, no matter if we are discussing the consequences they represent for Business Strategy or Microeconomic theories. Being in some kind of competition means that you have to offer something superior to what you would do otherwise. Ethics classes can break these barriers and turn themselves into richer experiences if both professor and students use them as a window of uncountable possibilities; including the ones they had contact with in other moments but also adding information and showing new interpretative layers for the narrative they have been exposed to.

Although some of us believe we share the same values with many people according to where we work, study or live, Ethics as a field of study is one of the broadest and most subjective sources of distinctive theories that exists. In common, nevertheless, most of them have implications to what is the correct way to follow in many situations; thus Ethics is inherently related to how the conscious mind makes decisions and the practical effects they have on the others. Because the practical dimension is the one we can truly say that is shareable within individuals and then use it as a common denominator.

In one of his masterpieces concerning Aesthetics, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asks an interesting question regarding an apparently ordinary decision: “How do I show my approval of a suit?”. Ghislain Deslandes (2) tries to figure this out: “Is it on account of my particular taste for such or such colour? Because it was designed thanks to the talent of my favourite tailor? Because it was made to my own measurements?”. Wittgenstein shows this is better answered by avoiding the temptation to overlook the theoretical dilemmas and says “chiefly by wearing it often”. “Action always comes first, the practical dimension exceeding any theory” as Deslandes points out. This is why we should address how Ethics works as a practice and how it is tied to narrative elements. Understanding this process makes it possible for the professor to stimulate students themselves to recreate Ethics in classes as a new paradigm for their professional and personal lives.

It is impossible to translate the narrative elements to a language if it is not the one that would be essentially related to action. It is also not needed to describe them as superior entities if we want to figure out their relations with Ethics. Just like narratives take place everywhere someone is telling a story or passing information on, Ethics are associated with the situation, the character and the form representing them in a certain sense. A situation points out which principles, norms and values one should take into account based on what is the event and when and where it is going on. One or more characters are responsible for the personification of virtues, even more if we consider that their behaviors are used in most tales to inspire or to be avoided. Finally, a form is what makes it possible, the existence of “patterning or [the] repetition of key elements” to the study of Ethics such as language, action or judgements.

One more time I can point back to my initial metaphor. The situation shows to that child the context in which they are the character in charge of continuing the learning process, once a teacher puts in their minds a dilemma by showing how words are formed and how to write them down. From an ethical perspective, that child will try to master the virtue of literacy following the principles, norms and values they could apprehend from examples shown in class to make a better use of a language and an action that will shape their judgments in future situations like these.

As you might have noted, it is important to emphasize that the ethical dimension clearly emerges to the subject when a dilemma occurs. A dilemma is the strongest sign of anguish faced by a human being due to the chaotic events brought to life by temporal existence (3), owing to the fact that in a broader sense time is fragmented in past, present and future when these events appear. Narratives assume an enlightening role situating the elements comprising this dilemma in organized time and space in a way that ethical concepts can demarcate the practical boundaries for possible actions. If we understand the classroom as a space for these actions to take form, Ethics classes is the right time to engage students as characters whilst opening situations where they would embrace principles, judgments and others forms of making sense out of dilemmas that emerge for everyone in real world. On this hand, rather than reassuring the instrumental knowledge that Economics students are currently using in decision-making processes, critical reasoning can be shown as an alternative. Regarding Business students the same applies because in both cases a window can be opened, showing a different perspective, through which everyone can jointly discuss and recreate what is being seen.

To this extent, it is interesting to go beyond Miller’s framework for narratives and the general interpretations it brings. According to Salen and Zimmerman (4) narratives can exist in two different forms depending on the way they are created, previously or during the (narrative) events. Then, narratives can be embedded or emergent.

On the embedded narrative spectators are mean to validate and transmit information and stories previously created under that context. The context makes it possible for a given meaning to be reached by experience. Otherwise, there could be numerous actions and interactions but no final goal achieved. Inside traditional classrooms, embedded narratives tend to be dominant when every class is strictly conducted according to closed syllabus and final exam. Fortunately, this does not mean there are not other possible combinations.

Distinctively, in emergent narrative stories are not necessarily told by a single entity but constructed by what the actions of all agents reveal. They are all continuously bringing original information instead of following an immutable script. Naturally, some restrictions and incentives are defined before the narrative emerges but you will never know exactly what is going to be added throughout the characters’ actions and how this will affect the final result. Additionally, differing from the embedded one the emergent process is composed by repeating cycles where information works as means to whom the actors are ends. Thus, the use of emergent narratives in schools and universities represents a rich opportunity to focus on students rather than a curriculum or a syllabus as the main guidance of a professor in classes, once some premises were embedded by them considering the role they will, then, perform as an interpreter in a context like this.

A linear flow is what defines embedded narrative. Information is structured in beginning, middle and end, with the end easily defined by the state of things when it is possible to verify systematically that the original content can be reproduced by the agents without noise. Think about multiple-choice exams, a normal distribution of grades associated to it and you will have a good example of this. On the other hand, on emergent narratives information not only informs but also appeals. It brings a successive desire for more information to be shown interactively. This process can only stop temporarily under a sufficiency condition if narrative events are given a place in time and space. As it is not hard to realize, once more the role of a professor is crucial due to all the data that students will be excitedly discussing. They might count on an interpreter whose major differential is not the amount of knowledge they hold but the capability of making sense out of everything that is going on. For the last two years as a senior student I have been thinking about how the emergent dimension can be successfully implemented to the narrative I see in my courses.

On the second half of the term, during my Business Communication course, instead of a regular final exam students were introduced to contemporary dilemmas demanding ethical reasoning. We were supposed to argue under a certain point of view on controversial themes such as intellectual property rights, abortion, bioethics and so on. In many cases, what happened was that students had to create their own narratives from scratch, as the complexity we could see in those themes after the ethical and communicational concepts discussed on the first half of the semester was new to a majority. It was not uncommon for some to depend on defending an opinion given by the professor that was contradictory to their real ones.

Some concepts were embedded on the first classes but once students started to feel mature and confident enough the professor got out of our ways to assume his position as an interpreter. He started to teach based more on the information we brought to classes than on his assumptions of what could be more relevant. There were guidelines he accorded to us so that all the diversity of situations he had on mind could flourish in classes, but he had not an exact idea of which situations we were about to talk. Regarding our final work, at the end of the term this was no different.

We got in touch with each other and as expected we used a lot of content found on the internet to deeper understand the topics we were discussing about, in order to present our final argumentation in front of the professor and our colleagues. At that moment, I realized how the internet which so many professors neglect in Brazil can be used as a window of infinite possibilities. Since we had started to research, almost every student discovered by practicing how embedded narratives work as a startup but not as the final destination. We learned about how many different points of view are there when you face real world situations and how they can be justified by an even larger number of particular theories. After some initial ignition from the professor's part, we did it all mostly in our own. We even found authors the professor was not plenty familiar with and in some cases prepared an outstanding creative reasoning to an old and universal dilemma.

After this, we were a step further into becoming interpreters by ourselves, for ourselves. I should remark one last time that just like in my initial metaphor, a student can passionately embrace learning not when a professor tells them what they should learn, but when they point out how much of the world this student or anyone else does not know about. There should always be a balance between embedded and emergent narratives. By exposing and expanding the ignorance layer (5) sometimes we are all immersed in, huge incentives are immediately created for those who dominate the right tools. No matter if I am talking about the pencil a child can use to write new words after seeing an embarrassing blank sheet of paper inviting them to new discoveries; or if I am admiring the digital content we found out to surpass the profound philosophical questions a professor asked us. In the end, even the most unmotivated (by the lack of equations) Economics student will be able to understand what the Nobel Prize winner F. A. Hayek (6) tried to mean when he tried to raise economists’ awareness to the fact that:

The curious task of Economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.

Just like in the internet where information is dispersed among all its users, then aggregated and infinitely recreated; in the classroom stories should emerge from numerous directions, then interpreted and finally told to others to prove they really matter.

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I would like to say a huge thank you to my professors Richard Fonseca and Ronaldo Lemos for the amazing discussions and insights!

  • References:

1 Miller, J. Narrative, In Critical Terms for Literary Study. 1990. p. 77

2 Deslandes, G. Wittgenstein and the Practical Turn in Business Ethics. Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organizations Studies. Vol. 16, No. 1, P. 52. 2011.

3 Bolshaw, C; Cruz. G; Gutiérrez, L; Protásio, A. Por que contar histórias? Um diálogo entre autores sobre narrativa. 2012.

4 Salen, K; Zimmerman, E. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. 2003.

5 Tiago Mattos (Perestroika) @ TEDx Porto Alegre.

6 Hayek, F. A. The Fatal Conceit. 1988, p. 76.