Red: A Crayon's Story
By Michael Hall
Meet Red, a blue crayon with a red label. Everyone calls him Red, well, because that’s what his label says. Following this logic, everyone expects him to draw in red, but as much as Red tries he can’t draw anything red. Some people say he just needs more practice. Others think he is just not that bright. Then one day, a friend asks him to draw her an ocean for her boat, and he’s great at it! After this, he realizes his label was wrong. He’s not Red, he’s Blue! Once his peers recognize he is a blue crayon, they praise his drawing abilities and call him brilliant. Blue himself draws proudly in blue from then on.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Alicia Crew and Piyari Paienjton
How do we assign value and give acceptance to persons or work? This book raises this question by providing an example of a community where expectations set a frame for judging someone’s or something’s worth. In other words, whether a person or job is valued and accepted is directly related to how well one fulfills an expected function in society. When Blue’s peers expect him to produce red drawings, they think he is faulty or lazy because he can not produce them. However, when they believe he is supposed to draw in blue, they call him brilliant and marvel at his work. Neither he nor his drawings change in the story. It is the expectation of what he is supposed to be able to do that changes. In this way, the value assigned to him, positive (“brilliant”) or negative (“lazy”), is proportional to his community’s perception of how well he fulfills their expectations. However, some might argue this is not a good system. Our expectations can be narrow, short-sighted, and mis-led. Because of his label in the story, people thought he was a red crayon even though he was a blue one. Similar expectations are present in our society surrounding gender, sexuality, IQ, race, mental health, physical ability, and so on. Expecting that someone should be good at basketball because they’re tall, a person of color, and male is incredibly misguided and harmful to the potential of said person is their self-esteem and confidence are lowered because they do not fulfill these expectations. This story can be used to question and discuss this model of judging worth. What should we expect of people? Should we expect anything from people? Should we push others to meet those expectations or standards in society?
Another issue the book raises is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value. Someone who argues that value is gained extrinsically might argue that Blue’s value really was lower when he could not fulfill his place in society. He is valuable when his functioning in society leads to or produces something of intrinsic worth. A common example of something with extrinsic value is money. Money is not inherently valuable, but is valuable because it’s a means to a valuable end. In the book, the valuable end was the one that they expected or desired. However, some might argue that Blue is intrinsically valuable, because he contains some intrinsically valuable quality. For some, when discussing humans, the intrinsically valuable property could be that they are alive or are a person. Based on an argument like this, inherent value and acceptance should be given to all work and people even if they have not produced something valuable for the community.
How much a person can change about themselves? What can they change? These questions are also raised in the book when Blue tries over and over to be able to draw in red. He practices; he is taped; his label is adjusted; he is given a scarf, but despite all his efforts and the efforts of those around him, he remains a blue crayon that can only draw blue things. One of the crayons even remarks, “He came that way from the factory.” With this example, the book raises the question of how much an individual can change about themselves. Certainly, famous pianists did not come from “the factory” being able to play Chopin. There is lots of evidence in our everyday lives that tells us we are mutable beings. The students especially can discuss how they learn new skills, such as writing in cursive or playing soccer. These are things that have changed about themselves through applied effort. However, there is contestation over how much that effort can go. Some might argue that certain people due to circumstances, such as being born tone-deaf, might never be able to sing despite their best efforts. Others might claim that one’s sexuality is not something that can be learned or chosen, but is simply something one has. Still others argue that that claim is false and that sexuality is something chosen, like a lifestyle, by the individual. If individuals do have the agency to change and shape their identity, what parts of our identity can we change, and what aspects can we not?
The book also asks we mean by our labels? In the book treating the blue crayon’s label as are true and static was harmful to Blue. This is particularly significant when it comes to labelling students based on performance on standardized tests, etc. The use of “average”, “below average” and even “learning-disabled” as labels for children based on previous academic performance has been recorded to have a negative impact on any future learning outcome(The Golem Effect), as children tend to internalize lowered expectations. Moreover, the use of limited labels, and the fact that that our definition of the label “smart” is so limited means that we fail to recognize “non-mainstream” forms of intelligence, much like the other crayons are blind to the fact that even though Red is really bad at being “red” (the expected proficiency), he is actually quite gifted at being blue (a different kind of “talent”). Recent scholarship has identified at least seven kinds of intelligence - bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal-introspective, visual-spatial and verbal-linguistic, among others. How much of a disservice are we doing students by recognizing and rewarding only one kind of label, and penalizing those who do not conform to this kind of intelligence?
Another question is, how do we recognize or come to define other’s identities and our own? How do we know if we are a blue crayon? How do we know when someone is smart? In the book his label was given by “the factory,” which could be seen as a metaphor for genes. People labeled him Red because the factory had said so, even though his drawings, or actions, were obviously blue from the start. In other situations in life, labels are given due to actions. We assign the label “doctor” because someone has completed a certain amount of education. Labels based on performance can include those labels given by standardized testing mentioned earlier. Other labels might be drawn from appearance. For example, because they are white and male, they will be good at math. The book asks us then to question where our labels come from? And beyond that, where should they come from? Are some sources of labels more incorrect or harmful than others?
Finally, the book allows us to discuss the relationship between labels and identity. Are labels a reflection of your identity. Earlier, we discussed how children’s identities might conform to fit labels. What other ways do labels relate to identity? This lead us to question the labels given to certain people due to stereotypes - gender and racial. For example, girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM (Science Math Engineering Technology), because the conventional wisdom is that they are better at “softer” disciplines. The effects of this are glaringly visible. Only 12% of engineers are U.S. women; 2% of engineers are women from underrepresented minorities. Minorities are severely underrepresented in supervisory roles just because people assume (because of their skin color / ethnicity) that they will not be as good at the job as a white person, even though their qualifications might prove otherwise. Some might argue that these stereotypes exist because the identities of the persons labeled do actually correspond with the labels. Others might argue that the identities are actually inaccurately expressed through these labels. (This could be an opportunity to discuss topics such as sexual orientation, transgender persons, etc.) The fact that in the crayons’ mind, there is only one path for Red to be of any extrinsic value - by coloring red - and that it never occurs to them that contrary to their beliefs about what he should be good at, he could actually be differently talented, segues nicely into this discussion.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Expectations and Value
“He was red, but he wasn’t very good at it…”
“Will you make a blue ocean for my boat?” ... “I can’t. I’m red.”
“Give him time .. He’ll catch on.” ... “But he didn’t catch on ...”
“Who could have known he was blue?”
“Everyone seemed to have something to say..”
Identity and Mutability
“But even with all our help and all his hard work, he just couldn’t get the hang of it.”
“Frankly, I don’t think he is very bright.”
“Nice! It’s so you!” .. “But it so wasn’t.”