Social Contracts, Paper Clips, and the Holocaust

This past weekend I attended a training program in Atlanta for counselors working at summer camps. There were many camps in attendance and the weekend was packed with presentations, discussions, and workshops. While all were meaningful and informative there was one in particular that stood out to me. We heard a woman named, Sandra Roberts talk about how her small middle school class of 16 kids was able to change the world. This class, at Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee, started when the Vice Principal asked Sandra Roberts to teach a course on the holocaust. What happened in the next year went far beyond the classroom.I will discuss how, what this class did, is essentially entering into a social contract. But first, let me tell you why Sandra Roberts and her class were so important. After reading a book about the holocaust Sandra asked the class if there was anything that they couldn’t move past, anything that they still couldn’t wrap their heads around. The answer was the sheer number. The kids couldn’t fathom what 11,000,000 people looked like, how they could vanish so quickly. Sandra decided, knowing how much easier it is to process numbers when it was put in front of you, to collect 11,000,000 of something. Deciding which, was a processes, but eventually they landed on paperclips. After deciding to collect 11,000,000 paperclips they called and sent letters to just about everyone they knew and plenty that they didn’t. The paper clips came slowly at first but then flooded in. The kids spent hundreds of hours before, during, and after school counting the paper clips they had received and contacting more potential donors.

Sign made to advertise the Paper Clips project

The paper clips came from all around the story and some had amazing stories. I will tell the story of one particularly powerful paper clip. It was received in an envelope as a single paperclip but with it came a letter from Germany. It spoke of a child whose father was a prominent doctor in Germany. One day the father told this child that he had to go away for an extended period of time because someone was very sick. The child accepted this as he loved his father and was therefore extremely upset when his mother told the child that his father had gotten sick and passed away. Time passed and one day when the child snuck up to the attic to play “doctor” in memory of his father he knocked over a box and while picking up its context saw a letter addressed to his mother. He read the letter and it went something like this. “Dear *****, I was saddened to hear of your loss and would like to send my condolences. Your husband was a truly great soldier and his efforts will not be forgotten. Sincerely, Adolf Hitler.” The child, now a grown man, said it was after reading this letter that he became an orphan and never spoke to his mother again. He sent that one rusty paperclip that was used to hold the pieces of the letter together and said “I don’t know how many men, women, and children, my father killed but I send this paper clip in remembrance of all of them.” Eventually all the paperclips were collected after articles were published in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and many German and Polish journals. To this day the School runs a holocaust remembrance museum with all the paper clips on display. I know that I have dedicated a large portion of this blog to the story as opposed to the connection it has with the class but I believe it is an extremely important story that needs to be heard as there is much to learn from it. Now however I will make my connection. Social Contracts, as we have talked about them, usually entail an individual sacrificing some of his or her personal freedom to a larger authority that provides them some sort of protection or advantage. I believe this is similar to what Sandra Roberts and her class did and here is why. Sandra and her class sacrificed their freedom in that they gave up hundreds of hours of their free time and class time that would usually have been dedicated to other subjects, to this project. They made a huge commitment that took years of counting, calling, and writing emails to finish. I can’t stress enough how much work was put in and how much time was sacrificed for this cause. While these kids obviously gained a sense of pride and satisfaction with what they were able to accomplish, much more was gained. The school, which used to send 10 of its 150 graduating students on to college, only to have 5 graduate from college, now sends 80% of its graduates to college and all 80% graduate.

Holocaust Museum outside of Whitewell Middle School in Tennessee

The museum which is completely run by students, sends the students involved all over the world and gives them opportunities to meet figures such as Supreme Court justices, congressman, and even the president. Clearly there have been many benefits to the sacrifice this class made in doing this project. The third and final part is the larger authority. The larger authority in this case isn’t a person or government as it usually is but rather an idea. The idea is simply that you should help others. That is extremely broad, but in this case they helped those who were lost in the holocaust be remembered and helped educate people about this tragic event in a way that had never been done before. It was this more general idea that they sacrificed their times towards and that rewarded them so greatly for doing so. Because this story fits the three criteria of a social contract (sacrifice made, advantage gained, and a larger authority involved), while unconventional, it is a social contract.

4 thoughts on “Social Contracts, Paper Clips, and the Holocaust

  1. This is a beautiful blog post! I have seen that movie numerous times and it struck me so personally each and every time because it is truly such an inspiration. I find your comparison to a social contract very interesting. When we talk about social contracts usually, it is in terms of Locke, Rousseau, or Hobbes and thus why I am confused as to which philosopher your blog post is referencing. All in all, I do find this a very fascinating blog post but I wish that I could see the comparison to one of these three philosophers more. Your story that you shared is very moving and I am glad that you shared it!!


  2. The Holocaust was the worst genocide in the history of the world. As noted in the blog, 11,000,000 people were exterminated’ I can’t even fathom that. Just think about it in terms we all can relate to, when it is sold out, The Big House holds about 110,000 people. I mean it is crazy to think that 100 times the number of fans for the Ohio State game were killed. 11,000,000 people is greater than the population of some small countries! It is absolutely staggering.. Well staggering is the wrong word. Sickening, terrifying, and disgusting are more fitting I think


  3. I thought this was an awesome post, you did an awesome job explaining the story and how it relates, although abstractly, to the idea of social contracts. I think that these type of social contracts (one in which it benefits society as a whole rather than one specific individual) are the most important for our society. Projects like the one these students organized are essential to our advancement as a society. While these projects (or contracts) are an effective way at providing knowledge to our society they also allow people to come together for a common cause and form bonds that will never be broken. While something like the holocaust may rip apart a society, the remembrance and honor of the victims can be used to bring a society together for the greater good.


  4. I agree with others, this was a very fascinating post. Something I believe people should be educated about. I do however think that when comparing the social contract theme to the post, you could have looked at how the young man cut all ties with his mother and how and if there was a breach in the universal social contract between families. Or maybe even the social contract of a teacher to society. She clearly did her part in providing the children with an extremely enriched education. Something not all teachers do. Overall, it was a really good post!


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