After fifteen years of teaching, I know it’s hard to get teenagers to care about things. In fact, there’s no surer way to get teenagers to revert to their more ancient, monosyllabic impulses than to utter the dreaded ‘should’ word.
How then do we get adolescents to pay attention, and even take on some sense of responsibility, for the plight of those who live in poverty? Well, with Spider-man, of course!
As a kid, I grew up watching super-hero cartoons. Now as an adult, I have enjoyed the renaissance of the super-hero genre in the form of the monolithic rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But my love for super-heroes goes well beyond the enjoyment of the primary-coloured protagonists living out my nerdy fantasies; it now stems much more deeply from my love of philosophy.
Teaching philosophy to teenagers is my life’s work and gives me a sense of joy that I cannot overstate. When you give them the chance, you find that adolescents are desperate to find the answers to the same problems that have plagued humankind since the very beginning, and none is more relevant or more pressing than what it is to be a good person.
Spider-man was always my favourite super-hero growing up and I think it was for reasons beyond the basic web slinging antics. At its core, the Spider-man story is one of responsibility and duty. The tragic nature of Peter Parker’s story is that his great power, comes with great responsibility. Whilst he did not choose to be bitten by that radio-active spider, he was. And, after being transformed by the venom of the spider, he now possesses special powers. If Spider-man decided to stop helping people, despite the fact that his extraordinary abilities mean he could have an immensely positive impact on people, can we still see him as a morally good person? The question is a challenging one for students, often so focused on their right to do whatever they want.
The response from students is far more considered than many might expect. They struggle with this notion of duty, but also struggle to view Spider-man as good if he does not use his power to make the world a better place.
It’s at this point that I like to spring the net! Much like Peter Parker, many of us did not choose to be born with our amazing super-power: our wealth. Now, whether we are living in a mansion or a simple family home, the odds are that if you live in Australia, and you are able to pay your bills and put food on the table, and maybe even save a little money on the side for a holiday or tickets to a popcorn pushing Marvel movie, then you are rich. Like, super-hero rich. At least in the context of the inhabitants of planet Earth. So, can we be considered good people if we do not use our power for good?
Usually this is the point where I face some resistance. Students are often unwilling to admit that they have wealth to spare, or that they have any responsibility to others. After all, what good could their meagre pocket money offer to those living in poverty? Surely, this would be a drop in the cavernous bucket of global poverty?
Well, yes and no. It’s unlikely that a teenager is going to be able to have an impact on a large scale (though I challenge any teen reading this to give it their best shot!). But, what constitutes an appropriate level of impact? If we save even one life, or help one little girl go to school, or provide life saving vaccines to one baby, isn’t that impact enough? For the recipients of our charity, it is indeed an impact that is life changing, or saving.
Many of you will be aware of Singer’s ‘Drowning Child’ analogy. It elegantly boils the debate of charity into its core tenants in an inescapably simple way. When we are discussing the difference between life and death, our discretionary money is hardly worth considering.
And this is where the students I teach get reflective. All of them can imagine a drowning child. All of them can imagine saving the child at no risk to themselves. All of them realise that the material sacrifice required to save the child pales in comparison to the child’s life.
It’s easy to demonise teens as self-absorbed. From the outside, they seem addicted to their phones and interested in only what impacts them directly. As someone who has spent their adult life working with adolescents, I can tell you that looks can be deceiving. Most are eager for a chance to prove themselves, they just don’t know how to do it. The impact calculator on The Life You Can Save website let’s them see just how impactful they can be. I’ve had students come to me and explain how they donated the spare $20 they had to a foundation via the website. There’s a certain pride that enters their eyes knowing that they were able to make a difference.
So, the next time you see a moody teen, remember that there’s a real human being in there. One that’s capable of doing great things. It’s our job to give them the opportunity. As uncle Ben said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”