Thursday, October 14, 2010

Value theory and happiness, as taught to 7-year-olds

Today my class read a story called "Hang on, Rose!" in which a boy wants to make his sullen dog feel better. He exchanges an apple to another boy for a jump rope, which in turn he trades for ice cream, which in turn he trades for a bone. The bone makes the dog happy, but we examined this story from a couple of different angles.

First we established the idea of trade and then discussed the good trade, as well as the bad trade. The goodness of a trade, of course, is linked to value theory, a concept by which we judge which things have value and which don't. I offered money as an approach to value theory.

So, we started by establishing the price of all four items involved. Most students pegged the value of a single apple as between $1 and $6, which was probably not as embarrassing as myself not having an idea of how much anything costs. I figure that the price of a half dozen apples is going to vary, at most, by a dollar or two, and it's not going to affect my decision to buy the apples or not. So, I never look at the price. I do often buy some bananas on the street, and they are between 30-60 cents each, so I figured an apple is the same price.

Most kids said that the price of jump rope was between $5 and $10, and I was inclined to agree, but then I consulted an adult more in touch than I am, who informed me that their low-quality jump ropes (they serve as often as sashes as jump ropes) are probably on the order of $2. I took the lowball estimate of 80 cents for an ice cream bar in favour of the $5 that someone gave, presumably for a tub. The price of a bone was interesting idea in itself, but I said that it had no monetary value.

Measuring the trades in monetary terms, I pointed out that the boy had traded a 50-cent apple for a $2 jump rope, and then gradually blown it all on nothing but a bone. Was this a good trade, I asked? No, said most, because of the money. But, the crucial point of the exercise was whether there was another way of assessing the value of a trade.

Patty pointed out that while a jump rope is long-lasting, an apple would not last very long, so the jump rope offers greater satisfaction. A move away from money towards happiness was what I was going for. Patrick countered with the idea that we could simply take one bite of the apple every year, a thought that puts him on par with the hiking-boots-and-heavy-metal-mural-t-shirt-wearing segment of upper-year philosophy courses.

As class came to an end, I broached the idea of what the end of trading was: was it financial gain, personal gain or, following the plot of the story, the dog's happiness? By the first measure, the jump rope was best, by the second the ice cream was the best, but keeping with the spirit of the story, the worthless bone was the best. Some students found the idea of pursuing happiness intriguing and probably we all would have liked to pursue it further, but we ran out of time.

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