Peter Parker’s transformation into Spiderman provides my favorite example of an expanding universe of obligation. Some of my students are so young that they haven’t seen the movie. It doesn’t matter, everyone likes a good story.
Consider this: Peter Parker is an average teenager whose world includes his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May who have adopted him. He is also obsessed with his crush, the beautiful and popular Mary Jane. His world is pretty small and self-centered. After being bitten by a radioactive spider on a school field trip, he begins to realize his super-powers. Hoping to earn enough money for a car to impress Mary Jane, he responds to a newspaper ad calling for wrestling to vie for a $1000 prize (I can never remember the amount). Scrawny Peter dons a saggy costume and shocks the audience with his impressive showing. Peter’s elation with the victory quickly falls to disappointment when the manager of the ring cheats him of his prize, only giving him $100. He protests but the manager shrugs, “That’s not my problem” (Students usually correct me that he says “I fail to see how that’s my problem.” It’s a good check to see if they are listening and to emphasize the point.)
Perhaps you have already seen the movie and know all about the Universe of Obligation—if so, maybe you don’t need to read any farther. But, if you aren’t sure how it all ends, by all means, read on.
Dejected, Peter Parker mopes toward the elevator when, suddenly, there’s a commotion and a man rushes towards the elevator. “Stop him!” yells the manager from his office, “That man just stole money from me!” Peter intentionally steps aside allowing the thief to make his getaway through the open elevator door. “I fail to see how that’s my problem,” Peter replies coldly.
At this point, some students remember what happens next, but few have connected it to the Universe of Obligation. Peter Parker discovers that the robber ran into the street and car-jacked and killed his Uncle Ben who had been waiting to pick Peter up near the wrestling arena. If he hadn’t let that man into the elevator—his sweet Uncle Ben would still be alive. This is the moment of transformation. He goes from being a self-involved person who only cares about a select few people to a superhero who, by definition, cares about everyone and takes care of everyone.
This caring superhero has a giant “universe of obligation” that includes everyone on the planet. This may not be realistic (it definitely oversimplifies a complex concept), but it helps students better understand the basic idea. Sociologist Helen Fein defines the term as “the circle of groups and individuals to whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.” Fein’s “universe of obligation” is a rich concept, definitely worthy of exploration with your students. Facing History introduces the term as a way of understanding how the various communities to which individuals belong, influences (or explains) their behavior. If you start to consider historical situations such as American slavery or the Holocaust, you begin to see that there can be very real consequences to being in or out of other people’s “universe of obligation”. For my class, I was planning to use this concept to explore our own capacities to care about people in distant land, specifically refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.
Before turning to Syria and before discussing the Spiderman example, we begin with students’ own personal “universe of obligation.” I do this to allow students to create their own connections and begin to reflect on their own feelings of affiliation and empathy. Because it contains a series of dense vocabulary words, Fein’s definition can be hard for students to absorb. To teach this concept, you need to slow down and spend a little time unpacking each phrase. (If your students are accustomed to Socratic seminar style discussions, this tiny sentence could be worth dissecting in that student-directed format.)
To get started, Facing History’s website has a great activity and worksheet that asks students to draw concentric circles, putting themselves at the center. (Click here to see the pdf or here for the Universe of Obligation Graphic Organizer.) They use the outer circles to assign levels of caring and obligation to groups and individuals in their lives. You will find that some students consider only a very small universe—perhaps their parents, other family and a few friends. Other students will include classmates, teachers, teammates, neighbors. Some will wonder where to put strangers, people in need like the elderly or homeless people. There is space on the graphic organizer for people and groups who are outside of one’s universe.
Like any activity, I think it is important to properly frame the activity. I try to pre-empt any bullying-type behavior by telling students that they don’t have to use specific names or try to exclude individuals a la “Mean Girls.” I also think it is important to remove judgment from this activity to allow students to be honest. I tell students that each person’s universe of obligation will be different and that’s alright.
Even though I tell students that the size of their universe does not matter, the truth is that I have ulterior motives. Over the school year, I hope to expand their universes and that’s where Peter Parker’s story comes in to play. After having just drawn their concentric circles which limit their universe, the Spiderman story gives students the idea that one’s universe CAN expand. It also plants the seed that it expanding one’s universe of obligation might be a good thing. It would be unrealistic to think that real students could instantaneously transform like a superhero, but I hope, as my students learn, their capacity for caring and connecting with people who are not like them might increase.
This activity is only an introduction. In a future blog, I will describe how I connected this to a lesson on current events in Syria. How do you introduce the Universe of Obligation? What would you connect the Universe of Obligation to in your classroom?
Click here to see a short video of another classroom introduction of "Universe of Obligation."