According to Wikipedia, which my students all claim is a super-credible source, a dystopia is: the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian.
I have read no less than twenty of these books in the last little bit, and in each one there’s usually one major crack in the foundation of the world, including: a bloodthirsty Capitol (need I say more?); love’s been excised from people’s brains, everyone dies in their early twenties; no one dies and young people are illegal; teens have to go live in the woods and learn to defend Canada or something. What’s with all these broken worlds? Why do they speak to teens? Heck, forget about the teens for a second, why do I keep reading these things? Because I just bought another one about some sort of crying disease that’s killing everyone.
The drama queen in me says I already live in a repressive and controlled state. My life is governed by bells, which ring at set times, and must not be disobeyed. I eat my lunch, while working, out of a brown bag, and then when I go home I have more work to do. Since a lot of my students work at lunchtime too, this description applies to them as well, though I do get to sit at a bigger desk. So maybe dystopias simply take a semi-familiar setting and amp up the stakes.
I think we respond to these increased stakes most of all, because we as a culture often lack a true sense of purpose, in our education and in our lives. Just this past year, I think I accidentally broke some of my best students. We read Neil Postman’s The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. (If you are a teacher you should read this book—seriously.) Postman’s main thesis is that there is no longer any true sense of purpose for education. When America was younger, there were what he calls gods which inspired us, chief among them was one he called The God of Economic Utility. This god’s tacit promise was that if we work hard in school, we will be rewarded with a well-paying and secure job, perhaps even one we enjoy. Beginning with my generation in the eighties, this god fell on hard times, along with the rest of us, and I think we all now realize that this promise is not one that’s always kept. One of my students who has always stayed up half the night to complete her work flawlessly, for years, sat in our discussion after reading this book and asked, “Why did I do all that? What was it all for?” But much as I hate to be the one to pull back the curtain, I do think it’s better than living in the dark.
Postman discusses other past inspirations for learning, including a true sense of civic responsibility and a feeling that we have a voice in the direction of our government. Obvi, these ideas are toast too. Part of the problem is doubtless growth—as our nation gets bigger, each of us has a smaller share of voice in how things run. But I think kids are savvy—even those who don’t get stuck in my AP Language class realize, if only on a subconscious level, that they are working hard, but don’t really even know what they’re working for. (I speak here of the kids who still work hard in school, who are also probably sharing the part of the Venn diagram that includes the YA readers. I’m glad these kids are reading anything, but I love the idea of dystopias because they are A)more accessible and widely read by teens than Neil Postman and B) I think they accomplish some of the same effect: waking us up, helping us to not lead unexamined lives, stuck on our treadmill of work and preparation for an uncertain future. The best, and scariest of these books, I think, is M.T. Anderson’s Feed. Anyone who thinks that teenagers are not capable of receiving a cautionary message aimed right at them should give a teenager a copy. Most of them get it, and they look down at their cell phones and tablets with horror—wide awake, at least for a moment, to the path we are all on.
When I feel a little trapped by the bells and the doubt, wondering what I’m actually accomplishing and what kind of world I’m getting my students ready for, books like Feed actually give me hope. I don’t know what the future will look like. I hope it’s not completely broken and doesn’t feature reapings, feeds, or zombies*. But I know that the readers will be a bit more prepared for whatever the future brings, because they are thinking—not just about what they have to do to put a roof over their heads, but about why we are all here. I think it’s important that at least some of us stay awake to ask those kinds of questions.
*I’ve taken several quizzes online. I know the odds aren’t in my favor in the event of a zombie apocalypse L