Author(s): Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook
NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.
Maryann Librizzi, Sayville High School, West Sayville, Long Island, NY.
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Students are given the following scenario to read. Dune Road in the Hampton's on Long Island's South Shore has houses worth millions of dollars built along the water. During hurricanes and severe storms, Dune road is often destroyed. The local government provides funds for the rebuilding of the road. Only the wealthy can afford to live there. Many of the houses on Dune Road are used only during the summer or as a weekend retreat by the owners. Unfortunately, some of the houses eventually get swept into the ocean.
The situation is quite controversial. Most Hamptons taxpayers are tired of paying for the road to be rebuilt; and they believe there are other, more important priorities in the community that need tax dollar support. Dune Road homeowners are afraid of what will happen if the road is not rebuilt. Not only will they find it difficult to reach their homes, their property value will go way down; and they fear no one will want to buy their homes if they try to sell them. They would also like to get some government money to repair their storm damaged homes.
Students are then asked to write two letters to the editor of the local newspaper concerning this problem. In doing this, they are to assume a different perspective for each letter. In one letter they are to assume the role of someone favoring repairing the Dune Road (e.g., a Dune Road homeowner who has spent the family's last dime in making this dream house a reality; a movie star who owns a Dune Road home; or a 12 year old child who visits his or her estranged father for two months during the summer at his Dune Road home). In the other letter they are to assume the role of someone opposed to repairing Dune Road (e.g., a taxpayer tired of contributing tax money to repair the road; a year around resident of the Hamptons who lives in a modest home and who would rather see tax dollars used to improve recreational facilities for year around residents; an environmentalist who would rather let nature take its course in the Dunes area). Letters should be restricted to no more than one page.
Students should then be invited to share their letters with the rest of the class, with discussion following. Next, each student should assume the role of editorial writer at the local newspaper. Having heard a variety of arguments both for and against repairing Dune Road, the editorial writer is to write an editorial viewpoint that addresses the issues, pointing out the important values at stake and recommending, with reasons, a resolution of the controversy. The editorial should be restricted to no more than two pages.
This lesson raises basic questions about the appropriate use of tax dollars. Parties on both sides of the issue may appeal to individual rights and fairness. Those opposing the repairs might appeal to the larger good of the community, which raises questions about how minority interests are to be respected. Opponents might appeal to certain environmental values (particularly if they believe that the Dune Road owners are harming the dunes area). This raises basic questions about the appropriate relationship between human habitation and the rest of the natural world. Those who favor the Dune Road development might point out that, in one sense, all human habitation interferes with the rest of nature. So, assuming human habitation is to continue, what criteria for appropriate human habitation and development should be used?
An important feature of this lesson is the form of reflection and communication it requires. The students's first task is to consider the issues from different, and conflicting, perspectives. In writing letters to the editor, two important factors are involved. First, students are required to try to understand perspectives different than their own. Second, they are required to try represent and support these perspectives in a public arena (the local newspaper). This raises important questions about citizen participation in public discussion.
The students's next task is to participate in a class discussion that is likely to expose them to a much larger range of considerations than occurred to them in the first part of their assignment. This sets the stage for the final task, that of writing an editorial that is responsive to this wider range of public concern. Again, the communication is in the context of a public forum, but this time from the vantage point of someone with the public responsibilities of a journalist.
Although much of this lesson pivots around issues of public policy in expending tax dollars, the full range of concerns should make apparent the importance of obtaining as sound an understanding of the relevant ecological considerations as possible. (E.g., to what extent should communities attempt to anticipate problems such as the Dune Road before permitting the development of certain areas for residential or commercial purposes?)
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