Professor draws upon popular culture to illutrate today’s moral issues
In a popular episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer secures an illegal, free cable television hookup. Lisa is appalled by her father’s crime and faces an ethical crisis. She announces her moral objection to stealing and refuses to watch the stolen cable TV programming.
Homer later complains to Marge: “There’s something wrong with that kid. She’s so … moral. Why can’t she be more like … well, not like Bart … but there’s got to be a happy medium.”
It’s a funny moment in the Emmy award-winning episode, “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” that points to a major philosophical conundrum, says Daniel Bonevac, professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin.
According to Bonevac, Homer raises an intriguing Aristotelian dilemma by asking the question: Can one be too moral? “For Aristotle, virtue is essentially the mean between two extremes,” Bonevac says. “Homer’s question offers a great way to explain this abstract ideal in a way that really resonates with students.”
Bonevac specializes in making philosophy relevant. For more than 15 years, he has used “The Simpsons” and other examples from film and television to teach esoteric philosophical concepts in the class, “Contemporary Moral Problems.” Bonevac’s willingness to engage popular culture may explain why the class is one of the most sought-after philosophy courses at the university.
“In teaching philosophy, you need common stories to illuminate theoretical ideas,” Bonevac explains. “In the past, Bible stories, Greek myths and Shakespeare performed this cultural role. What common stories can we rely on today? The best example I can think of is ‘The Simpsons.’”
Teaching the D’oh! of Homer
One of Bonevac’s favorite episodes is, “Homer the Vigilante,” which he says illustrates John Locke’s approach to the state of nature. In the episode, Homer forms a vigilante posse to combat the Springfield cat burglar.
“Homer’s actions highlight Locke’s argument that, without governmental authority, people would band together in private associations to protect themselves,” Bonevac says. “But they also reveal why that doesn’t solve the problem. Homer’s gang quickly spirals out of control, prompting Lisa to wonder, ‘Who will police the police?’”
To engage students in the philosophical debate on the nature of the soul, Bonevac screens the episode, “Bart Sells His Soul,” which raises penetrating questions about the soul’s existence and value. Philosophers and theologians have pondered the elusive concept throughout history.
“In many ways, philosophy is the most abstract of all disciplines,” Bonevac admits. “It addresses very general questions such as: What is real? How do we know? What should we do? But philosophy also is the most practical of all disciplines because it aims at wisdom. Living wisely, displaying good judgment, and understanding yourself and your surroundings are the keys to living well.”
Another pop culture example that appeals to students is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a television show Bonevac’s teenage daughters introduced him to during the late 1990s. After viewing several episodes, the scholar found that each of the characters tended to represent a different philosophical ideal, making it an excellent tool for illustrating how ideals translate into behaviors.
“Buffy represents the Kantian viewpoint, that all life is precious,” Bonevac explains, “and she’s in constant conflict with her watcher Giles, who represents the Utilitarian viewpoint. For example, Buffy isn’t willing to kill one innocent person, even to save the entire world. Giles is, and does.
“Meanwhile, Willow is an Aristotelian, worrying about how it’s possible to be virtuous in a world full of evil. And Xander represents common sense, which, at some crucial moments, saves the day. The tension between these perspectives pervades the whole series, so there are many examples to draw upon.”
Tradition of Engagement
The university’s Department of Philosophy has a long history of engaging popular culture and making philosophy relevant to today’s issues, Bonevac says. He was chairman of the department from 1991 to 2001 and led a diverse faculty that included the late Robert Solomon (see Pro Bene Meritis story).
Many of Solomon’s best-known works, “Spirituality for the Skeptic” and “The Joy of Philosophy,” were written with the lay reader in mind. Both Solomon and David Sosa, chair of the department, appeared in Richard Linklater’s 2001 film, “Waking Life.” In the animated feature, Solomon discussed the relevance of Existentialism in a postmodern world while Sosa addressed the problem of free will.
“Bob was a legendary teacher who engaged students with literature, films and popular culture, as well as philosophical texts,” Bonevac says. “His course on Existentialism was a model of how to get students excited about philosophical issues.”
Another professor who confronts the intersection between philosophy and popular culture is Tara Smith. She studies Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, revealed in her novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” as well as philosophical essays. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress, “Atlas Shrugged” is the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible.
Translating Philosophy’s Relevance
Yet, Bonevac concedes there are still significant barriers to making philosophy relevant to students today. Many philosophy texts are hard to read and principles can be difficult to interpret.
“Reading philosophy is not like reading anything else. Philosophers don’t tell many stories. They don’t present many facts. They don’t tell many jokes,” Bonevac says. “What do philosophers do? They reflect. They ponder. Frequently, they argue. Learning to read philosophy requires a new set of skills.”
That’s why 10 years ago, Bonevac set out to create a book that would combine theoretical and practical considerations. “Today’s Moral Issues: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives,” now in its fifth edition, is used by professors in ethics courses across the nation.
The book introduces students to theoretical approaches from heavyweight philosophers such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Locke and John Stuart Mill, and places them in conversation with a wide range of contemporary moral problems from abortion, animal rights, capital punishment, drug legalization, the environment and euthanasia, to free speech, gay marriage, pornography, privacy, racial equality, sexual behavior and war.
“Looking at these hot-button issues provides students with the opportunity to not only apply philosophical theories to real world examples, but also to test and evaluate them,” Bonevac says.
The scholar has taught “Contemporary Moral Problems” for nearly 30 years and more than 10,000 students have passed through the doors of his classroom.
However, he warns that the course doesn’t offer any easy answers.
“These philosophical approaches don’t give you the answers to life’s difficult questions,” Bonevac concludes. “They tell you what questions you should be asking. My goal by the end of the class is for students to learn how to ask the right questions, so that when they come into contact with any new issue, they have the basic tools to approach the issue from a philosophical point of view, rather than just an emotional or partisan perspective.”
Pop Culture in the Classroom
Faculty in the philosophy department are not the only scholars embracing pop culture in the classroom. Professors throughout the College of Liberal Arts draw upon film, music and television to teach everything from religion to the Russian language.
Karl Galinsky, the Floyd A. Cailloux Centennial Professor of Classics, teaches the popular course “Ancient Greece and Rome: Film and Reality,” which combines feature film screenings with traditional lectures. Students screen films such as “Ben Hur,” “Cleopatra,” “Gladiator,” “Troy” and “300,” as a lens for learning about classical history and understanding America’s fascination with re-creating ancient Rome.
“Academics love to point out the mistakes in these popular films, but the films are a wonderful tool to spark students’ interest in ancient civilization,” Galinsky says. “Instead of focusing on historical accuracy, we should consider these films an opportunity to discuss important questions about authenticity, history, truth and culture.”
Thomas Garza, chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, uses a novel approach to teaching the Russian language. He includes music videos from MTV Russia at his Web Site, “Rockin’ Russia,” to help students strengthen their language skills. The innovative site allows students to use several caption options—Russian subtitles, English literal translation and English colloquial translation—for a more nuanced interpretation of song lyrics.
“Russian pop music is really catchy so this helps students learn the language,” Garza says. “The videos also reflect the values of contemporary Russian youth culture, so they also provide cultural insights.”
Howard Miller, distinguished teaching associate professor of history and religious studies, compiled an expansive collection of pop culture images of Jesus for his multimedia course, “Jesus in American Culture,” available online in full-length video recordings at www.laits.utexas.edu/jc.
Students analyze pop-culture artifacts from “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets and “Jesus is My Homeboy” t-shirts, to action figures, shopping bags and diet books. They also examine cinematic representations of the life of Christ, from Cecil B. DeMille’s “King of Kings” (1927) and the rock-opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), to Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” (2004).
“In our culture of consumption, all things eventually become commodities—even Jesus,” Miller, a Friar Centennial Teaching Fellow, says. “Critiquing popular representations of Christ gives students a foundation to consider broader theoretical questions about the commercialization of religion during the 20th and 21st centuries.”