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The Little Engine That Could

by Watty Piper

Summary

This classic story explores such diverse topics as relativism and perseverance, among others.

A train breaks down, which might cause the toys it is carrying to not get over the mountain in time for the boys and girls. Every train engine, big and small, passes it by until the littlest engine agrees to help. “I think I can, I think I can,” says the Little Blue Engine as it starts up the mountain, a seemingly impossible task.

Read aloud video by Dan Santat (the illustrator!)

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Have you ever heard the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do?” Has anyone ever said that what was right for you wasn’t right for them? We live in a world where people have a wide multitude of opinions, political, social, and moral. What makes them have these opinions, and are they always entitled to them? In The Little Engine That Could, a train carrying toys and treats for good boys and girls breaks down. Three train engines decide to not help, each for their own reasons. Finally, a little blue engine comes along and helps. This story is a helpful reminder of the importance of perspective and optimism.

The philosophical ideas brought up are moral relativism and moral absolutism. Relativism comes in many flavors, but the one that fits best with The Little Engine That Could is cultural relativism. The world is full of people with different ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and what culture they grew up in changes how they think about things. In other words, they think like those around them, and as such, their values may be different from yours. The trains each believe they are doing the right thing based on their own values, and these stem from the kind of work they do.

In The Little Engine That Could, each train gives different reasons for why it won’t, or can’t, help the toys. Despite the fact that they each feel that they are doing right, they may be doing the wrong thing by failing to help. The idea that there is a right and a wrong thing despite circumstances is moral absolutism. This means that you should do the right thing, no matter what, and that people who are mistaken about what is right and wrong can still do the wrong thing.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Subjective Opinions

The train is carrying toys and food for good girls and boys. What makes a good toy or good food changes from person to person.

  1. What is your favorite toy?
  2. What is your favorite food?
  3. What is the best toy or food for everyone? Is there one?

Subjective Morality

The trains each give different reasons for why they won’t, or will, carry the train. What makes a moral action change between these characters.

  1. Have you ever ridden in a train?
  2. What was your favorite part of it?
  3. Why does the Little Engine think it is important?
  4. Why do the other trains think that the toys are unimportant?
  5. Is the Little Engine wrong?

Freight Engine

I am a very important engine. I won’t pull the likes of you.

  1. What makes this train strong?
  2. Does that make it different from other trains?
  3. Are grown up things more important than children’s things?

Rusty Old Engine

I can not, I can not, I can not.

  1. What might have this train done to make it so tired?
  2. Does it deserve to rest, or should it keep working?
  3. Should this train have tried to pull the toys up the mountain?

Little Engine

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

  1. What makes this train different?
  2. Why does the train want to help?
  3. What is different about how this train thinks?
  4. What do the words “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” mean?
  5. Have you ever tried to do something difficult?
  6. Does believing in yourself make it easier? Does it make you braver?

Relativism

What makes morals different from opinions? Is there such a thing as subjective morality?

  1. Did the little engine do the right thing?
  2. Did the other trains do the wrong thing?
  3. Each train thought they were doing the right thing. Does this change anything?
  4. Did the way that they thought about themselves change how they made their decision?
  5. How do we know what the right thing to do is?
  6. Is there one right thing for everybody? Think back to how everyone had different foods and toys.

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion archived here. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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

Download & Print Email Book Module Back to All Books
Back to All Books Cover image for The Little Engine That Could with an illustration of a blue engine with a sweet face on her stovepipe at the head of a colorful train filled with toys and animals. Behind the train is a beautiful landscape. 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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