Dystopian Visions in the Classroom
By Emil Heiple
As a Literature enthusiast, teacher, and education specialist who’s worked for many years with young people on the autism spectrum, one of the greatest challenges for my students is pulling forth real-world issues and lessons from overtly fictional works of Literature. When creating pedagogical inquiries, the great philosopher, Socrates, named a type of question after this task- that is the “World Connect Question.” For students, like so many at Orion, who tend to close themselves off from the outside world, it is obvious why struggles might occur when they’re asked to identify real world situations that mirror those in a work of fiction. Especially when the text is fantastical or imaginative.
Seminar course this term moves deeper in to exploring the “World Connect” question. The class, “Brave New Worlds: Finding Truth in Dystopian Visions,” will focus on Utopian and Dystopian ideas and societies found in prominent short fictional works. After reading and discussing fiction, students will ask Socrates’ great question by addressing themes and critiques of society and inquiring about how those relate to current or historical events. The student texts will be a cross over of fictional stories and non-fiction articles. For example, students will read a Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There Will be Soft Rains,” about a house that serves as a tool controlled by Artificial Intelligence that, after the end of civilization, is left alone and rendered obsolete in a world without any humans to serve. After reading and discussing, we will then dive into multiple research articles examining the practicality of Bradbury’s premonition in the way AI is being developed, used and measured in today’s society. Another text the class will analyze is Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which paints a portrait of a perfect society whose success is based solely on the suffering of one child. Students will take a stand on the concurrent theme and work to identify similar injustices such as third world oppression and sweatshop labor. Later in the term, students will begin to take more onus and search on their own for articles and information that reflect the theme of other stories, sharing their findings with the class, and eventually determining the legitimacy of the author’s dystopian vision.
Three guest lecturers will visit the class this term: a Literature and Rhetoric adjunct professor from USF, a science- fiction author, and a community mediator. The first two may be fairly obvious choices according to the description you’ve read above, but the third needs some explanation. Another of the Bradbury stories we’ll read entitled, “All Summer in a Day,” takes place in a classroom on Mars where the children are elated in anticipation to finally see the sun come out. They’ve been waiting for a whole year, but the new girl in school, who arrived on Mars from earth only 2 years ago, is ostracized and bullied by her classmates, who lock her in a closet causing her to miss this event. Here students will focus on bullying as the real world connection, thus the speaker from the mediation center plans to lead students through a training in Restorative Justice, a new popular alternative to traditional punishment for bullies. Instead of expulsion, many schools across the Bay Area (and the US at large) are using a community accountability model to restore peace after someone is harmed. I am excited for this lecturer to bring to light the Utopian ideal of “why can’t we all just get along?” from a very dark and serious real- world/ dystopian issue. Not to mention that students will be able to personally connect to this exercise, as many are interested in justice in schools and curbing bullying.
Dystopian literature is engaging to young adults (and the adult adults) for many reasons. For one, the truth of the world around us is dynamic, and so interesting literature must reflect that. It appeals directly to many students at Orion who are acute (and sometimes overly) critical thinkers, because the stories identify a disaster followed by the conflict that occurs in a very basic “Manichean” sense. Everything is not rosy in Dystopia. In today’s world the line between good and evil is much more obscure and thus it fits perfectly with the general design of the dystopian story.
In my Seminar course, students will be tasked with closing the gap between fiction and reality when analyzing assigned texts. They will lead discussions, exploring themes in dystopian texts, drawing comparisons to current events and the author’s vision. Such an exercise in identifying “gestalt” will no doubt challenge Orion students, honing their abilities to come to a more cohesive conclusion, and pushing them in new directions. This term students will take on more responsibility in leading discussions and two students per class will essentially “take over” and run the discussion using the questions they have created as well as soliciting questions from other students. At the end of the term, as a culminating experience students will be asked to create their own dystopian view of society and present their creation to the class. Who knows, maybe one will become the next bestseller, blockbuster, or bring to light a pressing societal concern?