Dr. Seuss’ classic book from 1954, Horton Hears a Who!, tells the story of a compassionate elephant with sensitive hearing who saves a town of tiny people living on a speck of dust. On the surface, this whimsical story is typical of Dr. Seuss with its rhyming cadence and simplistic illustrations. A more careful reading reveals important lessons underlying this narrative, lessons that are as relevant today as they were in 1954.
Lesson #1: Do the right thing, even when others doubt or ridicule you. For most of the book, Horton is the only animal who hears the desperate pleas of the Whos. Other animals in the Jungle of Nool, lacking Horton’s giant ears, cannot hear them. They think Horton has gone crazy, and they eventually snatch the speck of dust with no concern for the Whos. Horton persists in his caretaker role, tracking down the speck of dust and rescuing the Whos from an uncertain fate. Each day our students are called to make dozens of decisions, some large and others small. Horton was an ally for the Whos, amplifying their voices. As educators, we must equip our students to speak for themselves and for others, even when they must do it alone.
Lesson #2: Every voice matters. After Horton rescues the Whos from the clover patch, the animals from the Jungle of Nool threaten to cage him and boil the Whos. Horton pleads with the Whos to make as much noise as possible so that the animals will hear them and believe that they exist. The Mayor of Whoville rallies all the Whos to make a racket, but it is not enough. Desperate, the Mayor races through town to make sure that everyone is participating and finds Jo-Jo, “a very small, very small” Who. Oblivious, Jo-Jo is playing with a yo-yo and not making any noise. Once alerted to the need, Jo-Jo raises his voice to join the others, and it is just enough to allow animals other than Horton to hear them. After that, everyone in the Jungle of Nool is committed to protecting the Whos because they heard them. Our students may think that their voices do not matter, that they are too young or too small to make a difference. Jo-Jo demonstrates that even a small voice can have a big impact. The affirmations that we give our students that their voice and their thoughts matter empower them to use their voices to advocate for themselves, for people about whom they care, and for causes they champion. As the refrain from the book goes, “A person’s a person no matter how small…And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”
Lesson #3: You need information from all sides before you can make up your mind and participate thoughtfully. Jo-Jo initially failed to participate in the noisemaking because he isolated himself and did not know what was happening. The animals other than Horton assumed that they had all the information they needed and refused to believe Horton. One of our chief goals for students is to help them overcome ignorance and complacency. They must realize that they do not have all the information, that there are multiple perspectives on every issue, and that the responsibility to seek information from all sides is theirs. Teaching critical thinking skills is an essential part of education. In addition to using those skills to analyze novels and solve problems, students must think critically about information and sources so that they can formulate knowledge-based opinions.
Lesson #4: You can change your mind as you learn more. Dr. Seuss dedicated Horton Hears a Who! to Mitsugi Nakamura, a Japanese educator who helped him visit schools across Japan in 1953 to learn about the lasting effects of World War II on Japanese children. During the war, Dr. Seuss drew political cartoons, many of them depicting racist stereotypes of Japanese people. This story, and its emphasis on the importance of all people, demonstrates his change of heart.
There is a fine line between holding firm in one’s beliefs and being open to new information as it becomes available. Teaching students to navigate that space and emerge as thoughtful, active, and informed citizens is one of the great responsibilities of schools. This year, the complexity of COVID and the partisanship of the presidential election demonstrate exactly how critical it is that educators and students rise to the occasion.