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By David McKee


Elephants are big, have trunks, and are gray. But what about Elmer, whose skin is covered with colorful patchwork? Elmer, by David Mckee, tells the tale of an elephant who sticks out, both with his patchwork and his sense of humor, and how he and his community learn to accept and value his unique characteristics.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Jack Noble and Rinya Kamber

In Elmer, Elmer the patchwork elephant enjoys the role of being the clown of the elephant herd. All the other elephants laugh at his jokes and enjoy the games that he comes up with. But one day, Elmer stops having fun playing with the other elephants and decides to leave. Elmer raises questions about the value of diversity between friends and in communities, as well as the nature of social roles and whether or not you can decide to assume or abandon them.

Differences and Friendship

Many ancient philosophers saw the differences between two friends to be essential for their friendship. Aristotle saw the value of differences between a pair of friends to be based on their mirroring effect. You can analyze yourself by comparing yourself to your friends. You might ask yourself what you admire in your friends, such as kindness or generosity, and whether or not you ought to aspire to the same virtues.

Surely, however, friends do not try to resolve all their differences. You might appreciate your friend’s musical talent, for example, but feel no inclination to imitate it. As such, you might ask students why they look up to their friends, and, subsequently, which qualities they would like to adopt for themselves. As an extension of this line of inquiry, one might ask if being friends with somebody changes who you are.

Another question that arises from Elmer is this: should the other elephants be as funny as Elmer? If the other elephants look at Elmer as an image of virtue, they would recognize that they themselves are boring elephants, incapable of entertaining themselves, and that they should lighten up. But perhaps some virtues, such as having a good sense of humor, are not universal, but instead define specific social roles. Is Elmer, for example, simply a jokester, fulfilling a specific role in his community? Is it OK to laugh at all your friend’s jokes but never make any of your own?

Social roles and obligation

Importantly, Elmer did not decide to be his community’s entertainer. Perhaps he told enough jokes that he simply became a jokester, or perhaps the elephants thinking that he’s funny makes him a jokester. But if Elmer didn’t want to be funny anymore, could he change, or is he stuck in the role? Perhaps he cannot change that he is funny, but he can downplay that quality.. You might ask students whether they can decide how they’re perceived by their peers or whether the community determines what role people will play. For example, does someone become a class clown by making a lot of jokes, or by having their jokes laughed at by the class? This discussion can help students reflect upon what social roles they play amongst their peers and to what extent they can change them.

In the book, the elephants only laugh when Elmer is around: in a sense, they rely upon him. It’s unclear, however, that Elmer is obligated to fulfill this specific role of the jokester. Some argue that the assumption of obligation relies upon on some sort of contract or promise. A police officer, for example, swears to serve their community. Though Elmer did not agree to entertain the other elephants, it would be fruitful to explore the relationship between promises and obligation. For example, Elmer had promised to be the community jokester, then realized he really didn’t want to, or even couldn’t, would it be OK for him to take a stop?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Differences and Friendship

  1. Why do the other elephants look up to Elmer? Why does Elmer like the other elephants?
  2. If being funny is a good thing, should the other elephants be as funny as Elmer?
  3. What do you admire in your friends? Name a friend and one thing you like about them that’s also true about you, and one thing that you like about them that is not true about you.
  4. Do you want to be like your friends? In what ways?
  5. How would you feel if all your friends dressed up as you once a year?
  6. Imagine you had a clone: they look like you, talk like you, and like the same things. Would your clone be a good friend? Would you rather have this clone or your best friend?
  7. Does being friends with someone change who you are?
  8. Do you ever do things with your friends only they want to do? Do they do things with you only you want to do?

Social Roles and Obligation

  1. If Elmer didn’t want to entertain the elephants anymore, could he change? How?
  2. How would the other elephants react?
  3. Since the other elephants only laugh when Elmer is around, was it selfish for him to leave?
  4. If you had a friend who was really funny, but wanted to be more serious, would you still be friends with them?
  5. If your friends brought cookies to share with the class everyday, but decided to stop bringing them one day, would you be angry? Would it not be OK for them to stop without warning?
  6. If someone does something nice for you, do you have to do something nice for them, even if you didn’t say you would?

This book module deals with friendship, society, and obligation. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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