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The Story of Ferdinand

by Munro Leaf


The Story of Ferdinand raises questions about conformity, the ethical treatment of animals, and the value of peace vs. aggression.

A peaceful bull lives in a pasture with his mother and other young bulls. All the other bulls like to run and buck, but Ferdinand likes to sit under his favorite tree and smell the flowers. When five men come to take the biggest and roughest bull away, Ferdinand stays calm and content. Suddenly, a bee stings Ferdinand. Startled, he loses control, bucking and fussing more than anyone else! Assuming that he is a very fierce bull, the men take Ferdinand away force him into the fighting ring. They become very angry and surprised when Ferdinand refuses to fight.

Read aloud video by Storytime Bunnies

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Our society puts a lot of emphasis on teaching children to make ethical choices, but it would be difficult for any of us to determine a clear set of criteria that makes an action right or wrong each time. The Story of Ferdinand is an example of a young protagonist who grows up very comfortable in his own skin and with his own decisions, but is soon confronted with difficult situations that challenge his peaceful way of life.

Recognizing that Ferdinand is content to sit under a tree all day and smell the flowers while the other bulls are content to play, fight, and generally act more like bulls, can lead to a discussion about conformity and differences. Looking at how the men interact with Ferdinand can spark a discussion on the treatment of animals. How Ferdinand acts among bulls, and how he reacts among bullfighters, can lead to a discussion about peace, self-defense, and aggression.

Conformity and Differences

Children, especially males, often grow up socialized to believe that they should be tough. Amidst a cohort of young bulls who like to fight each other, Ferdinand is the lone, sensitive bull who prefers to sit and smell the flowers. At first, when Ferdinand’s mother sees all the other young bulls playing and sees Ferdinand behaving differently, she worries that he is lonely. But when she understands that he is happy, she relaxes. Ferdinand’s mother ultimately decides that it is fine for Ferdinand to be different, but her initial concerns reflect the underlying ethical question of whether it is beneficial for a person to conform to norms. Some argue that norms originate outside the self and thus should not govern how the individual behaves, while others maintain that norms serve an important role in regulating our behavior to best serve the interests of society.

Students will often decide that it is completely acceptable for two different groups (or a group and one outlier) to enjoy different things. Some argue that it is important for peers all to behave the same way in certain situations. The discussion on conformity can focus specifically on peer pressure and bullying, which is especially appropriate in a school setting. If everyone else around you is doing something, can you assume that it is acceptable behavior? When phrased this way, it may seem that the answer is clearly no. However, given specific situations, our answers may become more complex. For example, it seems like people should act the same way when playing games. After all, we model our behavior on those around us, and so it can be difficult to determine when to follow and when to “go your own way.” One interesting activity would be to go around the circle and have students think of a time in which they did something different from everyone around them. One could structure an entire session on the nature of being different and the ethical issues it raises.

Treatment of Animals

The second question set deals specifically with interactions between species. Humans use animals for human purposes, such as food, clothing, medical experimentation, etc. Most humans view themselves as somehow more important than all other animals. But, it is difficult to justify why it may be so. Most students will agree that Ferdinand should not have been taken away for bullfights, but they may disagree about whether or not his species is morally important and if so, why. Some people reason that species membership is an arbitrary distinction that should not be the basis for how one is treated, no more than should race, gender, ethnicity, and so on.

Peace and Aggression

The third question set deals with peace in general, which should certainly be considered regarding interactions between humans and non-humans, but also among humans themselves. Children are taught from an early age not to fight, but it is sometimes difficult to tell what this means. What about fighting in self-defense? In considering Ferdinand’s reaction to the bullfighters who want to stick him with pins and spears, students can debate ways to respond when someone else initiates a fight. Most argue that it is allowable to defend oneself against attack. Some, though, maintain that violence is never or almost never acceptable, like the advocates of ahimsa. The term means “no harm,” a Sanskrit term that is the foundation of many Eastern philosophies. A subscriber to ahimsa, like Mahatma Gandhi, a peace activist and celebrated pioneer of passive resistance, would maintain that a nonviolent response is always more appropriate. Another major 20th century proponent of nonviolent resistance is Martin Luther King Jr. While we teach the general mantra, “don’t fight,” television, video games, and other forms of entertainment can portray a violent lifestyle as a norm and sometimes as something to admire and emulate. Perhaps some forms of fighting can be acceptable form of play, like when children wrestle together. However, does this mean that there is something wrong with not enjoying rough play or violent video games? Parents and educators have been disputing through the ages whether violent play and entertainment is healthy or not; here is a chance for children to add their voices to the debate.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Conformity and Personality

All of the other bulls with whom Ferdinand grew up like to run and fight, but Ferdinand wants to live peacefully.

  1. How do you think the other bulls felt about Ferdinand?
  2. Have you ever wanted to do something different than what all your friends wanted to do? How did you handle it?
  3. If you did what you wanted to do instead of what your friends wanted to do, did they make fun of you? Did you or your friends end up changing your mind?
  4. Have you ever felt different from everyone around you? What was that like?
  5. Is being different sometimes a good thing, a bad thing, or neither? Why do you think so?
  6. Can it be uncomfortable to see someone behave or think differently than you do? Why?
  7. If a new student joined your classroom and every one of your classmates started bullying him or her, would you join in? Why or why not? Would you try to stop it? Why or why not?
  8. If enough people decide something is right, does that make it right? If enough people decide something is wrong, does that make it wrong?

Treatment of Animals

Ferdinand wants to stay with his mother and sit quietly under his favorite tree, but the five men come and take him away for the bullfight.

  1. Was it right for the men to take Ferdinand away to do what they wanted? Why or why not?
  2. Should humans use animals for entertainment? Why or why not?
  3. Do we have a responsibility to respect and/or to protect animals?
  4. What is more important: What Ferdinand wants to do, or what the fighting men want him to do? Why?
  5. Why are some pets, like cats or dogs, more common than others, alligators or cheetahs?
  6. Would Ferdinand make a good pet? Why or why not? Would real bulls?
  7. Why do some kinds of differences seem to matter when we decide how we treat animals, while other differences do not?

Peace and Aggression

Most everyone in the story except for Ferdinand enjoys fighting.

  1. Why do you think that Ferdinand does not want to fight?
  2. Why do the men believe that Ferdinand is fierce?
  3. Do you think certain types of fighting can be fun? Why or why not?
  4. When is fighting okay? When is fighting wrong?
  5. When is it okay to fight back when someone hurts you? Is it ever okay to fight back when someone hurts you?
  6. What should you do if you don’t want to fight, but someone tries to start a fight with you?
  7. Does being able to fight mean you should do fight? Why or why not?
  8. Can a fight ever be fair? What makes it fair or unfair?
  9. Does it matter if the one you are fighting is weaker or stronger than you?
  10. Is it fun to watch someone fight, as in sports? Is it fun to watch someone really get hurt? Why or why not?
  11. Is there such a thing as a good fight? If so, what makes it good, that it is entertaining, fair, difficult for both sides, safe?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Madeleine Lifsey archived here. Revised June 2020 by Jessica Mejía and Emily Knuth.

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

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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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