Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed
By Mo Willems
Wilbur is different from the other Naked Mole Rats in his Colony, because he wears clothes (and he likes it!). But what will happen when Grandpah, the oldest, wisest, and most naked Naked Mole Rat ever discovers Wilbur’s secret?
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By John Simpson
The strength of this story as a prompt for philosophical discussion is the fun way that it takes something that we take for granted (wearing clothes) and turns it into a social taboo. This nicely sets anyone who hears it up for a discussion around social norms, rules, and laws. Hidden gently in the background are opportunities to discuss friendship and hypocrisy.
Before saying any more about these themes I will offer one cautionary note: don't bring up Wilbur's powerful little question, "Why not?". Why? It has been my experience in using this story with elementary students, university students, and public school teachers that drawing attention to the question does two things that contribute negatively to the experience of exploring the themes in the book through discussion. First, drawing attention to the question immediately turns the focus of the discussion towards a kind of deep skepticism (Students have been quick to move towards claims like, "We should question everything!"). It is not that they are impossible to move from this position, but it is not as easy to have students recognize the other themes with this one is on the table from the outset. This may be because I typically use this story in audiences that don't know what to expect and so they are not prepared to discuss something so abstract and potentially troubling from the very beginning, but I suspect there are deeper reasons. Second, by avoiding calling out the question specifically you leave it open for the participants to discover the question. Since it is an obvious turning point and the story is short the discovery of the question by the students is almost inevitable. Having the participants discover the question themselves ensures that they do so in a context that they are ready to understand and work within.
Nakedness is a topic that is rarely discussed beyond the instruction given to very young children yet we somehow all seem to end up knowing more than we were ever told. Beyond whatever initial discussion someone received beyond simply reading the behaviour of others and inferring social norms nakedness is rarely discussed. It presents us with a set of rules around nakedness that we all seem to silently agree on. Further, it seems to be the case that there is a strong agreement that we should remain silent about it. This makes nakedness an excellent starting place for philosophical discussion around social norms. With the exception of children who have suffered or are suffering abuse and who may find any discussion about being naked deeply troubling and painful, you will likely find that most students are quite willing to talk about being naked when it is presented in an indirect way such as, "What are all the reasons you can think of for why we wear clothes?" and "When is it okay not to wear clothes?". Ultimately, as a teacher/discussion facilitator you should be prepared to exercise your professional judgment regarding just how far you want the discussion to go. Starting the conversation around wearing/not wearing clothes and then helping students redirect the conversation to other examples of deep social norms/taboos is a way out of a potentially awkward situation.
The status of the relationship between Wilbur and the other naked mole rats in the story is unclear. It seems to be the case that they are his peers in some sense, but whether or not they are actually friends is an open question. Friendship is a topic that is accessible to people throughout our lives and exactly what it means to be a friend will change as we change and grow. Even within an apparently homogeneous group of discussion participants the ideas of what counts as a friend will typically vary a great deal. However, friendship is also not discussed regularly and when it is discussed there seems to be a strong predisposition to reach an agreement around trivial generalizations. This is particularly the case with young children for whom agreement or following a leader is a hallmark of what it means to be "friends". For example, in discussions that I have had with children on this topic the other naked mole rats are not seen as being Wilbur's friends because, "They do not accept Wilbur for who he is." While acceptance is an important part of friendship it is only one facet of one of the most complex relationship categories in our lives. Your challenge as a discussion facilitator is to find a way for participants to think and talk about friendship in such a way that it allows for a recognition of these other facets. Questions like, "Is it ever okay to disagree with a friend? When? Why?" and "Do you have different kinds of friends? What makes them different?" can help prompt this discussion.
An opportunity for discussion participants to experience the story a second time or to hold the book and closely at the story themselves may raise the questions about what counts as clothing since many of the pictures feature naked mole rats, other than Wilbur, with accessories (e.g. a purse, a cane, hats, truncheons, and glasses). Once this has been noticed the discussion may turn to an attempt to decide what counts as clothing, but this will likely simply be a facade over the real topic that participants are more interested in discussing--hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the name usually given to situations where someone is telling others to behave one way while that person is doing something else entirely (usually the opposite of what they said to do). It is an important topic throughout our lives because it ties directly into our notions of fairness. Deciding whether or not things like glasses count as clothes is the first stage to exploring this issue through the story (If glasses are clothing then the other naked mole rats are in a position to be accused of being hypocritical). While a discussion around what counts as clothing can become quite philosophically interesting in its own right ("How do words get their meaning?" is an important question in philosophy of language) it will not be satisfying if what the participants really want to discuss is the possibility that Wilbur was treated unfairly.
Simply having an open discussion about hypocrisy may result in the participants rallying around instances where they are the ones being treated differently from others. In order for them to begin to navigate hypocrisy rather than simply sharing feelings around being treated unfairly you may need to challenge them to think about separating cases where there is simply a lack of equality/sameness from those where hypocrisy has actually taken place. Asking participants to make lists consisting of occasions where it is okay for them to do something different than they tell other people to do and occasions where it is not okay and then to articulate what their criteria were for deciding which example went on which list is a great way to focus specifically on hypocrisy.
Consider reviewing the following terms before the story is read or during the reading of the story: sarcastic, regal bearing, slacks, proclamation. If you want to prompt a discussion about hypocrisy in an indirect way then you could introduce the word before reading the story and then simply leave it to your students to see or not see.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion