Growing up, I remember frequent reminders to think before speaking; therefore, cautions like “be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear” resonate with me. While teaching, I frequently reminded my high school students, “Just because an idea crosses your mind doesn’t mean it has to cross your lips.” If anyone audaciously retorted, “I have a right to my opinion,” I would tactfully remind the individual, “You also have an obligation to decency.”
The topic of obligation brings to mind what sociologist Helen Fein (1979) calls one’s universe of obligation. According to Fein, how the members of a group, a community, or a nation define who belongs and who does not has a lot to do with how they define their universe of obligation. Although Fein uses the phrase to describe the group of individuals within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends” (4), we might also refer to an individual’s universe of obligation.
I connect this notion to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological Systems Theory. Influenced by fellow developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Brofenbrenner theorized that the influence of many institutions and settings—including social, political, and economic conditions—interact and affect the developing human. Brofenbrenner depicted these settings with interconnecting layers. Like ripples in a pond, the model suggests that interactions between individuals and their environments shape personal development over time.
To open a conversation about obligation, I might invite students to sketch and label these universes. Once they have considered to whom they owe responsibility in their immediate environments, I suggest they move beyond the family and friends circle to consider neighborhoods, communities, institutions, and other social systems to which they may feel an obligation. As students sketch and label these universes, the teacher might lead a discussion about any factors that influence how we define our universe of obligation and the roles that cultural values and altruism play in restricting or enlarging this universe. We might also discuss three additional concepts: 1) The ways in which an individual might communicate who is part of his or her universe of obligation and who is not, 2) The consequences that might transpire when a breakdown in the universe of obligation occurs, and 3) How this breakdown may contribute to prejudiced attitudes and to an escalation of hate if left unchecked.
From this exercise and discussion, students might take away a key fact: Everything we do and think affects the people in our lives, and their reactions in turn affect others. Therefore, the choices we make have far-reaching consequences. When we begin to see the world through these new eyes and to understand that each of us carries within us the capacity to change the world in small ways for better or for worse, we might also begin to view our obligations differently. Perhaps when we encounter prejudice, we might intervene and interrupt hurt, we might create conditions that reduce instances of injustice, or we might refuse to remain silent. Hopefully, students who have undergone this training will adopt Anna Sewell’s stance in Black Beauty: “With cruelty and oppression, it is everybody’s business to interfere when they see it” (106).
Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Fein, Helen. Accounting for Genocide. New York: Free Press, 1979.
Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse. New York: Barse and Hopkins, 1911.