“I’ve come to realize that Humanities in Action has remained to be one of the most influential courses that I’ve taken. Before your class, it is safe to say that I was a very different person who cared very little for the state of the world around me…I think what has stuck to me the most was the exercise on the very first day of class where you talked about chocolate and how cocoa beans were really sourced. You asked us the question “Is ignorance bliss?”, and I think that that was the most important concept that I had learned and what really led me to realize my interest in world affairs and social change. It is because of your class that realised my interest in global affairs and societal issues, which influenced me to pursue a major in Political Science…and I just wanted to thank you so much teaching me and helping me realize this.“*
– Bea Carandang, freshman at University of Toronto majoring in political science, commenting on her experience in Humanities I in Action four years earlier.
When students reflect on their time in Humanities I in Action, they frequently recall the first day of class. Grade nine students are incredibly open to new impressions on their first day of high school, so our teaching team has tried a new opening day activity the last two years that is not only a valuable lesson on its own, but also represents in microcosm our approach to their learning and growth throughout the year.
For some years we have used the issue of slave-produced chocolate. Because many students are practically addicted to chocolate, this issue resonates with them. The shadow side of chocolate production encourages them to think more deeply about their consumption patterns. In moving this topic into the initial activity of the year, we designed a memorable moment on day 1 for them – all around a central question of our first semester of study, “Is ignorance bliss?”
Teaching Day 1
Following the taking of names, I asked students to choose one of the following questions and to free write a response on a 4 x 6 card:
- Describe your favorite chocolate treat.
- What is a good memory you have of eating chocolate?
- What would be an ideal time and place for you to eat chocolate?
As they wrote, I walked around the room with a plateful of Ghana chocolate that was broken into bite-sized pieces. I asked them if they would like a whiff of the chocolate as inspiration, promising them by the end of the class they would have a chance to consume the chocolate.
We shared some of our stories afterwards. Reflecting on pleasurable experiences with chocolate was a pleasant icebreaker for the first class of the year. One student talked about how she would ritualistically cut fresh fruit and put them with a piece of chocolate in a circle, zodiac-like, before eating them. She also mentioned that whenever she was upset as a young girl her mother would comfort her with chocolate.
Then I changed up the atmosphere by asking them to do a second free write on the back side of the card: “Share an experience in which you learned something about society that was disturbing. How did you feel?” This time the tone shifted from pleasure to purpose, as students talked of traveling in Asia and seeing poor people, meeting refugees in Hong Kong, the question of shark’s fin soup, and more.
I then asked them to consider the question, “Is ignorance bliss?” Are you glad that you learned about these disturbing experiences or not? We had a wide-ranging conversation about whether ignorance of these issues was truly blissful or not.
I explained that I now wanted to put this question to the test and showed the opening segments of the BBC production, “Chocolate: The Bitter Truth.” Journalist Paul Kenyon takes viewers to the West African rainforest to trace the origins of chocolate production. First we meet a group of mothers in a poor village in neighboring Burkina Faso who have all lost their sons to what is presumably chocolate production in Ghana, the world’s second largest producer of cocoa. Kenyon then goes to Ghana, and acting as a cocoa trader, eventually is able to meet trafficked children who are the source of chocolate production. These children do not get paid, do not go to school, and need to handle dangerous tools in doing their work, all violations of guidelines established by the International Labor Organization.
The Moment of Decision
After about 10 minutes, I stopped the video, and announced: “You have signed up for Humanities I in Action. And from day 1 I want you to understand that this class is about making decisions, about acting on what you learn in this class. And so I have a choice for you. I have two plates of chocolate here. Both were produced in Ghana. This “Ghana” brand, one can assume, is produced by children like you see in the video. It is slave-produced. You may eat this chocolate with no cost. On the other hand, this second plate of Divine chocolate, which also uses Ghanaian cocoa beans, claims to be fair trade chocolate. It is a significantly more expensive than the free-trade chocolate, so if you would like some, you need to pay something to eat it. The whole bar costs about $30 HK [$3.80 US]. So, you have three choices: eat the free chocolate, pay for the fair trade chocolate, or you can also choose to abstain from the whole process.”
Then I announced the final twist to our social experiment: “However, to make your choice as free as possible without my influence as a teacher, I am going to leave the room. There is about 5 minutes left in class, and you cannot leave until the bell rings. I will come by after school, and collect the chocolate and, if there is any, the money contributed to the free chocolate. Do you have any questions?”
And with that, I placed the two chocolate bars on a table in the back of the room, put a cup next to the fair trade chocolate, told them I would see them tomorrow, and walked out of the room.
I came back 15 minutes later to pick up the chocolate and the money in the cup. To my surprise, I found two empty plates, and $130 HK dollars in the cup. (To see what happened last year, scroll to the bottom of the entry.)
Four Themes from Student Reflection
As a follow-up to the day 1 chocolate activity, I asked students to comment on an online forum before the next class. Here is my prompt:
Day 1 was a great success! I appreciated all the great comments, and the way you listened to each other. Discussion of opinions about current issues, about human nature, and about what can we do are all key components of the course. These are all part of what we will call a ‘worldview,’ or a system of beliefs. American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote is helpful here: “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” For us to have right action in the world, we need right thought.
So, your homework this weekend is to reflect on today’s class and write a response. For full credit, you need to answer the three questions below in 15 lines or more by 9 PM on Sunday night. Look at all three questions and plan your answers ahead of time so that you don’t repeat the same ideas in different questions. Make sure you address all three questions.
- What was your biggest insight from today’s class?
- What action did you take at the end of the class regarding the free trade (possibly slave-produced) vs. fair trade chocolate and why? Also think about: what went through your mind regarding what action you took, and how much/how little were you influenced by your peers?
- I chose this activity because it represents in one class what I hope to do all year with you. Take a guess, then, what is my method for teaching you?”
In reading student responses, four themes emerged:
Theme 1: Students found the multiple perspectives expressed in the class discussion to be thought provoking.
“ Through the class discussions, I got an insight of the different views that people had about the troubles of today’s society. While talking about our opinions, I found that many people had contrasting views of each matter, and I found that intriguing” (Jessica).
“The biggest insight for me during class was how everyone is so opinionated. I think this plays to our strengths because by having different strong opinions, we can get deeper into certain important topics. Especially when we were talking about worldwide issues that bother us, everybody seemed to be aware of all the news stories. In particular, everybody had a different perspective on the child trafficking topic so it did open eyes and doors to different viewpoints. I love hearing varied beliefs, it helps me realize and understand what others are thinking. I love debating so when everyone is opinionated it gets me worked up and it will go on for hours!!” (Taina)
“I learned a lot from Friday’s class. On that day I saw the world from different perspectives, all of which I agree with. Our world is very troubled with such disasters as the Ebola outbreak in Africa, or deaths caused by freak accidents and the harsh and violent ways humanity acts. I also learned that even simple pleasures like chocolate has a negative side. Students who don’t take this class may never hear about the trafficked children who work day and night in the cocao fields to bring us this great treat. I will remember this class the next time I buy chocolate” (Jonathan).
“From this class I learned that there are many different ways to look at what is happening in the world and what different people think on how to respond with those. The different ways that people think of the news are that they should ignore it or read it. Those who ignore it think that it makes there life better and those who don’t ignore like to understand what is happening in the world. I think that this class showed me that looking at the news sometimes is better than never because you can understand what is going on with the world and hardships that are happening” (James).
Theme 2: Students reflected deeply about the ethics of their actions, especially in the context of their peer relations.
“When the fair trade and free trade chocolate was offered and the terms were set, my initial thought was no matter what I was only going to eat the fair trade chocolate. I went and gave my donation and ate the fair trade chocolate. But as I saw my peers freely take the free trade chocolate I began to get badly tempted, so much so I even picked up a piece of the free trade chocolate. As I was about to eat the free trade chocolate the video flashed through my head. I started thinking about the parents who have lost their children to cocoa farming and I thought how my parents would feel if that happened to them. As I let those thoughts mull over in my head I made a decision. I dropped the chocolate back onto the plate, got my stuff, and walked out of the class with my head held high” (Shiv).
“I actually spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do. I also observed what other people did. Some made a donation and didn’t eat any chocolate at all, which I thought was kind of fruitless. Some didn’t donate and chose to eat the Ghana chocolate, possibly made by slaves. And all the others donated and ate the factory-made chocolate. Everyone had different opinions, but mine stood alone. My personal action was donating, but eating the Ghana chocolate instead. I felt the need to do this, because a lot of effort and time has been put in by children to make that chocolate bar. The children have given up their childhood and an education to make chocolate bar, then why put their efforts to waste? I would certainly hate it if someone consumed what I produced, and I didn’t get anything in return for it. I think my action made sense and didn’t really have any negatives towards it” (Ananya).
“I picked the one that wasn’t made by the trafficked children and donated my spare change to them. When I put the change in the cup the first thing I thought of was the children not what my classmates thought of me. I was not as concerned about “face” , as I was about following what my gut said, and if given another chance, I would do it in an instant because it’s simply the right thing to do. I may not be able to save the world by myself, but making good ethical choices in such instances gives me a good feeling that I did something” (Jonathan).
“The action I took at the end of class was to donate $15 towards the Fair Trade chocolate. The reason was because I realized, not only during the video, that young children can be tortured in the most dangerous conditions to make our pleasure: chocolate. This opened my eyes, because we treat buying chocolate as just losing $10. We never dare think about where it was made, or the circumstances involved” (Taina).
” At the beginning I paid for the fair trade chocolate because of course it was the right thing to do and it would have probably have tasted better, it was a no brainer. Although, that day I didn’t have lunch so I was pretty hungry and wanted more chocolate, but then I didn’t have anymore pocket change so I didn’t take anymore. Later on one kid took the slave trade chocolate and said that it didn’t really matter if we took it because Mr. Schmidt already bought it. Then it went from one person taking it to two, then three, so then everyone started taking it. I followed because I thought what’s the damage if everyone else is taking it, so peer pressure affected me and everyone else a lot. If that one kid hadn’t taken it then I bet nobody else would’ve followed and all the chocolate would probably still be there” (Matt).
Theme 3: Students made personal connections between this issue and their daily lives with family members and friends.
“I recall my father bringing back chocolate from the US last year. He purchased it at Whole Foods, a US based grocery store that not only focuses on healthier foods, but also the stories behind those foods and where they came from, and how they were harvested or brought to market. I believe more stores should take more responsibility to let consumers know the origin of our foods” (Jonathan).
“Many of us complain about parents being too strict or not getting the newest iPhone, but the reality is while you may be complaining about phones and parents, most kids in other places that isn’t Hong Kong may not even have those things (parents included). The reason this was my biggest insight is because this will probably stick with me for a long time. When I complain about my brother getting something better than me I’ll remember that what I have is better than a lot of the kids and try to be more grateful for what I have” (Matt).
“The thing that really took me aback was not the child labor (though that surprised me too), but the amount of people that didn’t know how most chocolates are being produced. When I asked my siblings on their chocolate, they told me quite confidently “from chocolate factories” (they’re both younger than me). Then after a few minutes, they came back to me and asked “right?’ This shows me that they actually had no idea if their chocolate was made through child labor or sweat-free chocolate industries. As mentioned in class, Ghana owns one of the world’s largest chocolate industries. I know a few friends who are fans of that brand, and out of curiosity, I asked them if they knew the process of their chocolate being made. They all guessed factories. This just simply shows me how oblivious most people are of what’s going on in the world. Because I took the humanities in action course, I knew that taking action was not only part of my duty, but also the right thing. After watching the video, I succesfully persuaded my siblings and some friends to not worry about the price when buying chocolate, but instead, buy what they think is made legally” (Chris).
Theme 4: Students wrestled with the statement “ignorance is bliss” and have begun to define their own values in response.
“Though our class had a lot of insights from Friday’s class, the one phrase that stuck with me throughout the discussion was ‘Is ignorance bliss?’ I really had to process this, and upon hearing all the perspectives in the class, I came up with my own opinion: ignorance is not bliss. People like us know about what is going on in the world, but they choose not to take action towards it. Some say it’s unavoidable, and some are just too lazy. But somewhere in the back of their mind, they know someone’s dying of malnutrition, an animal is being skinned, and a beggar is trying to make a living. Ignoring the facts is not making us any happier, but instead it’s making us feel guilty about who we are as a person. At least I know it’s making me feel guilty, and appreciate whatever I have. I’m not saying that action needs to be taken, but a little appreciation would be nice” (Ananya).
“From my first class in Humanities in Action I came away with many new insights. Despite having those insights there was one question I couldn’t get out of my mind. Is ignorance really bliss? At first glance during class I thought I had an idea to what my answer was to the question, but as class continued I realized that I didn’t know what my answer was. Throughout the class I felt like I was at a loss, till I came to a conclusion at the end of the class. I realized that ignorance is bliss until you are exposed to what you are ignoring. Only when you get this exposure you realise that you can’t continue to be blissful, when you realise what you have been ignoring. A great example of this comes from the story of Siddartha Gautma more commonly known as Buddha. As a Prince he was happy his entire life until he felt like he was missing something, and so he ventured outside of his perfect life and was exposed to the “horrors of life”. When he was exposed to this, his ignorance was no longer bliss and he went out and did something about it, just like we as a class are going to do this year. So my biggest insight from the first class is that ignorance is bliss until exposure” (Shiv).
“During class we discussed about the commonly known saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” however, most of us stated that this isn’t true and that people want to make a change but are intimidated with the amount of problems and people. Even though people do want to help resolve issues they feel like as in individual they won’t make a change so instead they choose not to do it” (Khushi).
“Topics like Ebola in West Africa, bullying, the issue of hunger in Hong Kong, and others were brought up, which led to the question, “Is ignorance bliss?” I’d never thought about that question before, and it was riveting to hear everyone’s thoughts. Some people said, yes, it is bliss because you are untroubled. Others said no, because you are living in a “bubble” and would be curious to find out what other people live like. My view on the topic is that yes, ignorance IS bliss, however only to a certain point. After living in complete ignorance for your life, you would start to question things and become curious about what’s outside. Though life would be more troubling, you would be able to make an effort to help, and I think that it would be even more blissful to accomplish something for someone else” (Jessica).
Teaching Day 2
Having read students’ blog comments, I hoped to have a rich discussion about the many topics raised on day one. To begin the period, I showed two video clips. The first was from “Dark Side of Chocolate” (2:45-13:00), in which executives in Europe claim to know nothing about chocolate-based slave labor, and then the investigative reporter easily finds a young girl being trafficked in Mali. I follow this clip with a segment from a video made in the late 1990’s about a related issue: “Slavery: A Global Investigation.” In one clip (17-21 minutes), a young man who worked for more than five years without pay on a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast was asked by the investigative reporter what message he had for the millions of people around the world who eat chocolate. He responded, “If I had to say something to them, it would not be nice words. They enjoy something I suffered to make; I worked hard for them, but saw no benefit. They are eating my flesh.”
I then paused the video at this point and began to discuss the previous day’s activity. What followed was a highly engaging conversation about the activity:
- How did you feel when I walked out of class and left you alone? (Surprised and even shocked.)
- What new ‘group script’ emerged once I, the authority figure, left? (One quiet boy oversaw the students paying to eat the fair trade chocolate. When I asked how he felt about taking on the role of “The Enforcer” in the class, he said with a mix of pride and embarrassment that he felt “a little important.”)
- Who was the first person to eat the free chocolate? (One boy ate it and at least one other followed suit because of the first boy; soon the rest of the bar was consumed.)
- Do you feel guilty about eating the free chocolate? (Somewhat.)
- How do as wealthy students feel when we see poor children being taken advantage of? (Guilty, even though we’re not sure why.) Yet sometimes when we visit poor people in developing countries, they seem happier than we do. Why? (Their lives are simpler and less stressful.) Would any one be willing to switch your life for poor people’s “simpler and less stressful” existence? (One said definitely yes. )
- Would the boy on the screen approve of your decision to eat the slave-produced chocolate because, as you said, it’s better “not to waste?” (No.)
- To what degree did you act on your own personal/moral values and to what degree were you influenced by the new norms of student behavior that emerged once I left? (A mix of inner-directed and outer-directed behavior.)
- Is ignorance of the chocolate issue bliss? (It’s blissful until exposure punctures the ignorance.)
- Why was there so much money in the cup? (One young lady had been studying about fair trade issues over the summer, so she emptied her wallet into the cup. The money will be donated to our first service outing in which we do a “flag day” here in Hong Kong to raise money for St. Barnabas Society, a charity aimed at alleviating local poverty.)
1) Is eating the fair trade chocolate the moral choice and eating the free trade chocolate the immoral choice, or is it more complicated than that?
2) Should you feel guilty about something that you were ignorant of before?
3) Is it easier for rich people to be moral and harder for poor people?
This hour-long discussion set up many themes for the year:
- What are the motivations and values that undergird action responses?
- Is individual participation in harmful patterns of consumption morally acceptable?
- How do we in our own classroom relationships act out sociological concepts such as following a group script, diffusion of responsibility, loss of authority figures, and bystander apathy that we will study about later during the first semester?
- Can personally held beliefs challenge emerging group norms?
- How can concerned people make a difference in society?
Microcosm of Social Conscience Pedagogy
At the end of day two (and primed by question three in the previous night’s homework), I shared with them the teaching pedagogy that not only guided this activity, but has proven effective in this class over the years.
We teachers look for current issues that touch the lives of our students, consider the psychological (e.g., student reflection about their connection to the chocolate slave trade; the feelings of the trafficked children and their parents) and the sociological (e.g., the way that global markets operate; peer influence without a teacher in affecting individual decisions during the activity) dimensions of these topics, and then look even deeper into the fundamental questions that undergird these issues (e.g., is ignorance bliss; can we live happy lives enjoying commodities produced at the expense of others)? For day two’s homework, students researched an issue they care about, illustrating how it operates at all three levels of the model.
We as teachers also want to model in one class period the process of social conscience development that I found in my research. Students gain awareness of an issue (e.g., see a video, learn about the difference between free and fair trade products), become emotionally engaged in the topic (e.g., consider their own positive memories of eating chocolate; feel compassion for slave laborers in West Africa), and take an action response (e.g., eat or not eat the chocolate).
Studying and acting upon compelling issues using psychological, sociological, and philosophical lenses has proven to be an engaging way to start out the school year. We believe that this two-day introduction to the basic pedagogical approaches of the class will help students better understand the potential depth and holistic learning of the methods used in Humanities I in Action.
Featured image courtesy of: http://effectingchange.livejournal.com/63593.html
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*A fuller statement from Bea:
“I think what has stuck to me the most was the exercise at the very first day of class where you talked about chocolate and how cocoa beans were really sourced. You asking us the question “Is ignorance bliss?”, and I think that that was the most important concept that I had learned and what really led me to realize my interest in world affairs and social change.
At first, Humanities in Action made me uncomfortable. On the first day of class in my freshman year of high school, Mr. Schmidt introduced the chocolate activity and lead with the question “Is ignorance bliss?”. This puzzled me as I didn’t really know what to make of the question. As the class progressed, we began to learn the reality of how cocoa beans are sourced and how most major chocolate companies source their cocoa unethically. This was the beginning of the uncomfortable feeling that began to reside at the pit of my stomach. The feeling didn’t go away as the next few classes progressed, because immediately after the first class, we dove into more and more real world issues. The feeling of unease became more and more present, and soon I realized that the feeling wasn’t necessary discomfort, but guilt. I felt guilty for choosing ignorance over reality. I felt guilty for choosing to stay safe and happy in my own expatriate bubble, and for filling down the urgency and magnitude of the rest of the worlds issues. It was then that I realized why Mr. Schmidt asked us on the very first day, “Is ignorance bliss?”. I realized that my whole life I was living in a bubble and had subconsciously put into practice an us and them mentality. I had separated myself from individuals that I saw on the news, believing that I was immune to experiencing any of “their” problems. For this reason, I realized that it was my fear of suddenly feeling guilt, that I would leave the room if my dad put CNN or BBC on. Although I did feel uneasy at the beginning of the class, it was necessary in order for me to realize that issues such as poverty, unethical labour, or the refugee crisis were real and happening at that very moment. It made me realize that ignorance was not bliss, and that I could no longer escape the reality that the world has issues that urgently calls for change.
Looking back now four years later, I can say that Humanities in Action quite literally changed my life. This class completely broadened my world view by encouraging me to accept the reality that the world is not perfect. It is because of this class that I have come to realize my passion for learning and talking about world affairs and my deep interest for understanding why our society is the way it is today. Today, I am studying in the University of Toronto and am working towards obtaining a double major in International Relations and Sociology.”
Picture from 2017-2018
Picture from 2016-2017
Picture from 2015-2016
Picture from 2013-2014