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by David McKee


Elmer explores questions like “How do differences impact friendships?” and “Must we fulfill our social roles and obligations?”

Elmer the elephant is covered in a colorful patchwork pattern. But his appearance isn’t the only unusual thing about Elmer–he’s also got a different sense of humor. Will his community ever accept him? Will he ever learn to accept himself?

Read aloud video by Dramatic StoryTime Theater

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

In Elmer, Elmer, the patchwork elephant, enjoys the role of being the clown of the elephant herd. All the other elephants laugh at his jokes and enjoy the games that he comes up with. But one day, Elmer stops having fun playing with the other elephants and decides to leave. Elmer raises questions about the value of diversity between friends and in communities, as well as the nature of social roles and whether or not you can decide to accept or abandon them.

Differences and Friendship

Many ancient philosophers saw differences between two friends to be essential for their friendship. Aristotle quantified the value of differences between a pair of friends as a kind of mirroring effect. You can analyze yourself by comparing yourself to your friends. You might ask yourself what you admire in your friends, such as kindness or generosity, and whether or not you ought to aspire to the same virtues.

Surely, however, friends do not try to resolve all their differences. You might appreciate your friend’s musical talent, for example, but feel no inclination to imitate it. As such, you might ask students why they look up to their friends, and, subsequently, which qualities they would like to adopt for themselves. As an extension of this line of inquiry, one might ask if being friends with somebody changes who you are.

Another question that arises from Elmer is this: should the other elephants be as funny as Elmer? Perhaps some virtues, such as having a good sense of humor, are not universal but instead define specific social roles. Is Elmer simply a jokester, fulfilling a specific role in his community? Is it OK to laugh at all your friend’s jokes but never make any of your own?

Social roles and obligation

Importantly, Elmer did not decide to be his community’s entertainer. Perhaps he told enough jokes that he simply became a jokester, or perhaps the elephants’ belief that he is funny makes him a jokester. But if Elmer doesn’t want to be funny anymore, could he change, or is he stuck in the role? Perhaps he cannot change that he is funny, but he can downplay that quality. You might ask students whether they can decide how they’re perceived by their peers or whether the community determines what role a person might play. For example, does someone become a class clown by making a lot of jokes, or by having their jokes laughed at by the class? This discussion can help students reflect upon what social roles they play amongst their peers and to what extent they can change these roles.

In the book, the elephants only laugh when Elmer is around; in a sense, they rely upon him. It’s unclear, however, if Elmer is obligated to fulfill this specific role of the jokester. Some argue that the assumption of obligation relies upon some sort of contract or promise. A police officer, for example, swears to serve their community. Though Elmer did not agree to entertain the other elephants, it would be fruitful to explore the relationship between promises and obligation. If Elmer had promised to be the community jokester but then realized he really didn’t want to, or even couldn’t, would it be OK for him to stop?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Differences and Friendship

  1. Why do the other elephants look up to Elmer? Why does Elmer like the other elephants?
  2. If being funny is a good thing, should the other elephants be as funny as Elmer?
  3. What do you admire in your friends? Name a friend and one thing you like about them that’s also true about you, and one thing that you like about them that is not true about you.
  4. Do you want to be like your friends? In what ways?
  5. How would you feel if all your friends dressed up as you once a year?
  6. Imagine you had a clone: they look like you, talk like you, and like the same things. Would your clone be a good friend? Would you rather be friends with this clone or your best friend?
  7. Does being friends with someone change who you are?
  8. Do you ever do things with your friends only they want to do? Do they do things with you only you want to do?

Social Roles and Obligation

  1. If Elmer didn’t want to entertain the elephants anymore, could he change? How?
  2. How would the other elephants react?
  3. Since the other elephants only laugh when Elmer is around, was it selfish for him to leave?
  4. If you had a friend who was really funny but wanted to be more serious, would you still be friends with them?
  5. If your friends brought cookies to share with the class every day but decided to stop bringing them suddenly, would you be angry? Would it not be OK for them to stop without warning?
  6. If someone does something nice for you, do you have to do something nice for them, even if you didn’t say you would?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Jack Noble and Rinya Kamber. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Cover image for Elmer with a grid of multi-colored squares as a backdrop. An elephant with the same grid-like pattern can be discerned in the center of the cover. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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