Utopia/Dystopia and listening to teenagers

I am in the midst of teaching what I am calling a mini-seminar series on utopian ideas. The course is in five parts with each session devoted to a specific book. The course is broken down like this:

Week 1: The Communist Manfesto (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels)
Week 2: The God That Failed (Richard Crossman, ed.)
Week 3: Utopia (Sir Thomas more)
Week 4: Winnipeg’s General Strike (Michael Dupuis)
Week 5: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

Already the course has become for me a fascinating discussion/rumination on the question: What is a utopian society?

What I find most interesting about this course is that I am witnessing a group of teenagers who have grown up in a post-Cold War world where the threat (or spectre) of communism no longer carries any of the weight that it carried during my own early childhood. Their opinions are free of the Cold War, East vs. West polarities I was reared on growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

What I also find fascinating is that this is a generation that has grown up with a profusion of dystopian books, graphic novels and films. Over the past three years I have been introduced to vast literatures detailing for young adults what a dystopian future might look like. These books range from The Hunger Games to the Divergent series to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and World War Z. And of course Margaret Atwood has also made her own contribution (The Year of the Flood). All of my students are familiar with at least one dystopian novel or film and consider dystopia to be a very real possibility for their futures. I honestly do not remember a similar interest in dystopias when I was a teenager, then again I came of age during that oddly buoyant period known as the 1990s before the towers fell, before the “Great Recession” and before the broadening discussion/controversy of Global Climate Change.

I believe that it is appropriate for young adults to read, consider and discuss literature whose primary concern is asking the question: what does a fair, just and equitable society look like? It is frankly refreshing to hear them discuss these matters intelligently, politely and passionately without the cant and hackneyed phrasing so common in the popular media. But more importantly, I think that introducing young adults to literature of this calibre and indicating to them that they are ready for it is immensely important because it not only encourages them to voice their concerns, observations and opinions but it also teaches them that serious questions deserve serious consideration and that they, with their enthusiasm and verve, can make a contribution and have the intelligence and aptitude to do so.

I would like to see more air time and screen time in the media devoted to roundtable discussions and Socratic seminars where young adults are the participants. I find their observations and interactions not only enlightening but in fact more enlightening than that of pundits and wags because they have not reached a point where they feel they have found the grail for all of our problems or have a vested concern in one ideology or programmatic solution.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

 

 

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