Educational Ethics: Theodore Zeldin’s 36 questions

We are collecting short provocative and exploratory texts on ethics, written by UAL staff. If you would like to contribute to any of the educational ethics resources hosted by the Exchange please contact: t.p.stephens@arts.ac.uk

The importance of dialogue

Approaches to educational ethics are all supported by dialogue. Every level of the UAL Educational Ethics Code of Practice is a continuation of the conversations you already have with your students.

Work on conversation often refers to Theodore Zeldin. His contribution emphasises the importance of asking genuinely searching and self-reflexive questions, alongside respect and new possibilities for ethical enquiry.

Draw from or adapt Lindsay Jordan’s translation of Zeldin’s 36 questions as ice-breakers for students to talk to each other, or for staff in teams. Let’s reflect on the quality of our conversations prior to engaging in ethical discussion.

This is important because we could say that relational ethics is predetermined by the way we relate to one another in the first place. Some would say that we are currently witnessing a fracturing of social cohesion and trust in society. So to be able start a conversation on practice-based ethics we are presupposing that a level of trust has already been established within the group.

Trente-six sujets de conversation: 36 topics of conversation


By Theodore Zeldin. Translated by Lindsay Jordan

Chapitre 1

  1. How can one start a conversation without the usual platitudes?
  2. Is it useful to adapt to the other person’s style of speech?
  3. Can a good conversation remain impersonal
  4. How can you get at the deeper meaning of what people say?
  5. Is it ever worth using humour at someone else’s expense?
  6. How can you help a shy person to speak with confidence?

Chapitre 2

  1. Why do lovers often say they’re unable to express their love in words?
  2. Why do we fall in love at first sight rather than at first words?
  3. A proposition of marriage can be made as a question, a speech or through a conversation. Which would you prefer?
  4. How can you express your admiration without resorting to flattery or self-denigration?
  5. When you’re presenting yourself in conversation, do you play yourself up or down?
  6. Is it possible to have a good conversation with someone who never takes the bait?!

Chapitre 3

  1. Why do the fuses trip so easily when talking to family?!
  2. How old do you have to be to join in a conversation?
  3. Are shared memories necessary to talk about your lives?
  4. Who would you like to have a conversation with?
  5. Are words necessary for family relationships to flourish?
  6. What are the good things about silence?

Chapitre 4

  1. Is a successful conversation one that follows an expected path?
  2. What place is there in conversation for the competitive instinct?
  3. If you can’t share your personal concerns with your colleagues, does that mean you’re in the wrong job?
  4. Can you guess someone’s job from the way they talk?
  5. What’s the remedy for a conversation that makes you feel unimportant?
  6. Is it possible to have a conversation with a customer if the customer is always right?

Chapitre 5

  1. Does a technical/practical training preclude an appreciation of the poetic?
  2. Are the best conversations the riskiest?
  3. How do the sounds in your environment affect the way you think and speak?
  4. To what extent are your conversation topics influenced by the media?
  5. What effect do electronic games have on conversation?
  6. Does too much information give you indigestion?!

Chapitre 6

  1. When is it necessary to change the subject?
  2. In intercultural conversations, is it better to focus on similarities, or differences?
  3. What possibilities does a letter offer than a conversation doesn’t?
  4. Is it sometimes a good idea to make the other person think you’ve understood them, when you haven’t?
  5. Do you like to have your opinion changed in conversation?
  6. When or where is it best to have a conversation with yourself?

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