Teaching about Conscience Through Literature

by Cynthia Stokes Brown and Herbert Kohl

Note: This excerpt from a section of the Teaching Human Rights through Literature Resource Notebook
includes only the introduction, table of contents and one activity.


One way to approach the moral and practical problem raised by issues of conscience is through literature. Poems, songs, and themes from plays and novels can be used to focus students' attention on specific aspects of moral choice and responsibility. They can lead to discussions of the issues involved, to suggestions for creative writing, and to a more general investigation of the historical conditions that led people to perform acts of conscience or to become passive.

The literature used in this section to illustrate different aspects of conscience are merely samples of a whole range of works that could be used to teach human rights, and the exercises can easily be adapted to any material a teacher wishes to use. We encourage teachers to seek out their own material.

This section focuses on six different aspects of conscience:

Part 1. Not speaking out. This section deals with moral silence, with people who choose not to take a stand and who allow themselves to be silent witnesses.

Example 1: W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"
Example 2: James Schevill's "Confidential Data on the Loyalty Investigation of Herbert Ashenfoot"
Example 3: W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939"
Also: poem by Alaide Foppa

Part 2. Learning to speak. This section describes people who, due to the influence of another or the power of a situation or some unexpected inner resource, learn to speak out for what they believe in. It will also deal with change in belief and moral conversion.
Example 1: John Newton's "Amazing Grace"
Example 2: René Belance's "Smile"
Example 3: Marge Piercy's "Unlearning Not to Speak"
Also: poems by Hien Luong and Alicia Partnoy

Part 3. Taking a stand. This section concerns situations in which neutrality is impossible, situations concerning the oppression of one group of people by another. It deals with the conflict between the notion that speaking out and taking a stand is a social responsibility and the notion that the only responsibility is to oneself or one's own group.
Example 1: Florence Reece's "Which Side Are You On?"
Example 2: Phillip Lopate's "Solidarity with Mozambique"

Part 4. Fear of acting on the basis of conscience. This section deals with people who have clear moral feelings yet are afraid to act upon them, as well as with people who try to act on the basis of conscience and then pull back.
Example 1: Pablo Neruda's "Toward the Splendid City"

Part 5. Consequences of acting on the basis of conscience.
Example 1: Muriel Rukeyser's "The Gates"
Example 2: Ishael Reed's "Sky Diving"


Many people make a conscious effort to not know some of what is happening in the world so they will not forced to make moral choices. These people hesitate or refuse to confront the personal consequences of social injustice or the violation of fundamental rights of various kinds, believing that it is best to remain ignorant or keep silent. Moral avoidance has been portrayed in literature in many ways.
Example 1: W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"
This poem provides an ironic portrait of the good citizen who has never taken action or felt the need to act on the basis of conscience.

Topics for Discussion:

A. Auden uses a number of phrases to develop the idea of a passively obedient, unthinking citizen: "no official complaint," "the Greater Community," "normal in every way," "the proper opinions for the time of the year," etc. Ask the class to discuss these phrases. What might their opposite be? For example, what are improper opinions for the time of the year? What occasions official complaint?

The idea of "official complaints" and unofficial complaints can lead to a general discussion of the difference between complaining in private and trying to do something about your complaints.

B. In conjunction with an analysis of these phrases, ask the class to generate an "anti-poem": "To the Too- Well-Known Citizen" or "To the One Who Objected too Much."

C. A good lead into a discussion of obedience is the line "When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went."

D. A discussion of Auden's final statement can lead into the whole question of freedom of expression. Does the structure of our society inhibit or encourage the free expression of ideas? For a few? For anybody? Do people get punished (either psychologically, socially, or physically) for the free expression of certain ideas? What ideas are considered dangerous? Why?

E. At the end of the poem Auden says:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

He is implying that under the surface the statistical Unknown Citizen might have been a complex, troubled individual lost in an uncaring world. These lines have double meanings and therefore employ the literary device of irony, which is an effective way to make a point indirectly. One way for students to familiarize themselves with irony would be to practice rewriting direct sentences - from other excerpts in this section - using this device.

The Unknown Citizen
(to JS/07/M/378
This Marble Monument
Is erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word,
    he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken our in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High Grade-Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

W.H. Auden