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The Little House

by Virginia Lee Burton

Summary

The Little House explores a number of environmental ethics issues through a story of rapid and unwelcome industrialization.

Long ago, a Little House lived in the country. As the years go by, the countryside transforms into an urban city. What was once green grass and natural surroundings turned into large skyscrapers and loud train stations. The Little House grew shabbier and shabbier with each passing day. Soon enough, the Little House disliked living in a developing city, and “returned home” to the countryside.

Read aloud video by Mrs. St. Germain Reads

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The main philosophical issue in The Little House is environmental ethics. Environmental ethics discusses the balance between nature and human interaction.

In The Little House, the Little House is built in a calm natural setting, but eventually, a city is built around her. The Little House is personified with gender, thoughts, and emotions. She experiences how human activity has caused multiple environmental issues, such as the lack of natural resources and pollution. Those who advance technology promise to make people happier. In contrast, The Little House poses the question of whether this is true. Even though she is in the middle of the modern city, the Little House appears to be miserable. Do modern advancements really increase a person’s happiness? Or do they instead stifle a person’s ability to be happy? While The Little House focuses mainly on balance between nature and human interaction, it also raises issues of curiosity as an ethical trait.

The first set of questions discusses the environment in direct relationship to our happiness. Does the state of the environment contribute to a person’s happiness? The Little House appears to be content with her original living conditions. She becomes sad when the natural environment is industrialized and then ecstatic again when moved back to the countryside. With each environmental change, there seems to be an obvious emotional state that goes along with it. Clearly, the state of the environment directly impacts the Little House’s happiness. According to philosopher Arne Naess, our relationship with nature and our partnership with other forms of life in nature contribute significantly to our quality of life. Many earlier philosophers did not think that this was so. The Little House provides young students with an opportunity to debate the significance of the natural environment for human happiness.

As mentioned before, the Little House is personified throughout the story. The emotions and thoughts the Little House has to symbolize human experiences in accordance with development. Her walls become shabby and dirty, causing her to look run down; the relationship between nature and the Little House is severed because there is nothing natural left in the city. The Little House appears to be happy when she is around natural settings and fresh air. Therefore, her happiness is dependent on her connection with the natural settings around her.

Moreover, the contrast between the people who are in the countryside versus the people who are in the city relates back to the relationship between the environment and happiness. In the countryside, the kids play and have fun in nature, whereas in the city, everyone rushes and does not seem to have time for themselves. Cities around the world exist because the trees and grass that were once there were torn down and built on in order to create an environment with fast cars and large buildings. City life means brighter night skies, quicker transportation, and convenience, all the while bringing polluted air and distractions. Is this a better living setting? Does modern development promote happiness? Or has the connection with nature been so disconnected, creating an unhappy living environment? Essentially then, this stark difference in how the countryside is described and how the city is described, with the Little House’s preference for the countryside, speaks to how one’s environment can significantly affect one’s happiness.

The second set of questions discusses curiosity. One could argue that curiosity is what sparks someone or something to change or not to change. The Little House is curious about living in the city, and her curiosity could have potentially led to the changes she saw in her immediate environment. It can be argued that curiosity is not a good thing. Take the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” as a prime example of that sentiment. One could argue that there are different types of curiosity, and the differences between these types are what determine what is considered good or bad. For example, unless a natural curiosity for knowledge is considered a good thing, why would education be highly valued in society? In opposition, certain types of curiosity can be seen as a negative. The curiosity for harmful substances or dangerous actions that can negatively affect you or others are seen as bad types of curiosity. Then again, others believe that all curiosity is good and necessary because it can lead to innovation.

The third set of questions discusses human interaction with nature. Is it our right as humans to use the environment as we please? Aristotle believed that nature exists solely for the sake of man. Others believe that nature should be preserved under all circumstances. But why exactly is this? Many people value nature because they understand how important it is to human survival and well-being, yet in order for us to survive, we have no choice but to destroy some parts of nature. Some believe that we will never reach a point of balance between the degradation of our environment and its preservation because of industrialization due to the world’s growing population. The Little House will allow children to think about whether there is a happy medium between nature and industrialization and determine where that balance might be.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

The Balance Between Nature and Human Interaction

The city has developed around the Little House.

  1. At what point does the house seem dissatisfied with the development that is happening around her?
  2. What makes the house sad?
  3. Do you think the house would have been happy if the environment had not changed? What about if people noticed her?
  4. How does the environment affect how we feel?

Compared to how she felt before the city developed around her, the Little House starts to feel sad and lonely.

  1. Which would you prefer to live in the city or the countryside? Why?
  2. Is there something about either place that makes you like this place more?
  3. What is this thing?
  4. Does it make you happy? Why?
  5. Would you want to live in a place that is a mixture of city and countryside? Why?
  6. If yes, what would this place look like?
  7. Do you think your happiness is affected by where you live? Why?
  8. Does returning to a familiar environment make us feel happy?

Industrialization

The countryside around the Little House is destroyed in order to build more buildings.

  1. At what point does the degradation of the environment become unacceptable?
  2. Who or what determines whether a change in the environment is necessary or acceptable?
  3. What are some of the benefits of preserving the environment?
  4. What do we as humans need to survive?
  5. Why does nature need to survive?
  6. At what point does the Little House ‘think’ the development should have stopped? Is it when the pollution became too excessive, or did she feel disconnected from who she was before development?
  7. At what point does the house not like living in the city?
  8. What matters most to the Little House? Is it the environment, or is it something else?
  9. Is there a happy medium between nature and industrialization? Where do you think that is?
  10. Is the environment more important than human life? Why?
  11. What determines what is more important? Why?

Curiosity

The Little House was curious about the city.

  1. What does it mean to be curious?
  2. Is being curious bad or good? Why? Give examples.
  3. When does being curious become bad?
  4. Do you think her curiosity actually caused the Little House’s environment to change and develop into an urban city?
  5. If she had never been curious, would the change have still happened?
  6. Can curiosity, in and of itself, cause change, or is there something more that causes change?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Elizabeth Han and Stephanie Maitre. 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 Illustrated children's book cover for The Little House featuring a little red house that looks sort of like a little face between two green trees with the sun shining just above. 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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