Utopia–you won’t find it here! But you’ll find several Lesson Plans

“That’s not fair!”  What teacher or parent hasn’t heard that statement from a teenager?  That question–in no matter what tone it is uttered or screamed or no matter how misguided we might think it is–reflects nascent stirrings about justice.  And good teachers will use that question to draw students into dialogue with texts and each other on the central topics of utopian writing: human nature, justice, iconoclasm, satire, authority and governance, and work and play. (Warning–this entry is teacher-nerdy and longer than usual–by about 50%)

I’m going to present several ideas about the place that utopias might have in a curriculum and suggest some texts that might illustrate particular ideas about utopias and that might help us sharpen our definition skills. The irony that I spent my graduate school academic career studying utopias and that I now run a school has not escaped me; I’m sure that it has not escaped my faculty or students either.

 Utopias have several virtues that recommend their teaching.  Here are three:

1)       One is that they break down the boundaries of academic disciplines.  Northrop Frye wrote of Utopias as a place where “specialized disciplines can meet and interpenetrate with a mutual respect.”  I love the notion of interdisciplinary work (see the blog post on the virtues of a liberal arts education for an elaborate treatment of that topic). I know that I studied theology, philosophy, history, sociology, political science, psychology, literature and ecology while I was working on my dissertation.  So the study of utopias forces students to make connections across boundaries and that is a real gift in education. 

2)      A second important reason to teach utopias is that they force us to confront some of the really big questions in life in a direct way.  How should we live our lives?  What is the goal of society?  What is the telos or end at which social life aims?  How do we govern ourselves?  How should we govern ourselves? Where does authority come from?  Is authority related to force? to power? Why is education important?  What is human nature? Where else will students confront questions so nakedly if not in our classes?

3)       Utopias are essentially works in the history of ideas and their appearance in so many forms allows us to introduce lots of ideas and genre conventions.  Consider that a partial list of the forms in which utopia appears would include: philosophical dialogues (Plato and Thomas More); travelogues of More, Swift, Wells, and Gilman; the diaries of Zamyatin, London, and Atwood; the dream visions of Morris and Piercy; the beast fables of Swift, Wells, and Orwell; the theological tracts of St. Augustine and Campanella; the psychological plan of Skinner; the social plan of Bellamy; the plays of Čapek; the films of Fritz Lang, Ridley Scott, Stephen Speilberg and numberless others as well as whole realms of speculative fiction. I might also mention that while most genres are distinguished by their form (lyric poetry, drama, non-fiction, the novel, the short story), Utopias are distinguished by their content.

The fact that many of these writers had limited success at the literary forms they chose may actually be a point in their favor—student accessibility is sometimes easier when teaching the apparently obvious. The painfully obvious names in Erewhon might be one reason for high-brow critics to dismiss such a text.  To a student who is just learning to really read (to interpret and not just sound out groupings of letters), the idea that “Erewhon” can be rearranged to “nowhere” is an important insight. I think I have mentioned before that when Hawthorne’s eponymous Young Goodman Brown leaves behind his wife, “Faith,” my sophomores do not immediately find this over-the-top pointing by the author.  They are often genuinely fascinated to think that “the author thought that up.”

Thomas More in 1516 gave us u-topos, and its homonym, eu-topos so that to the auditor one was essentially hearing the “no place” or “the good place”–or more likely given More’s playfulness, “The good place that is no place.” Dystopia follows by the same construction–the bad place (dys + topos).  In class I use “utopia” for the whole group, “eutopia” for attempts to depict “the good place” and “dystopia” for depictions of “the bad place.” (For a painfully overwrought and academic discussion on why I use “dystopia” as opposed to “anti-utopia” you’ll have to search out my dissertation–the barely readable Maps of Mythreading: Utopias as Revolutionary Mythologies.) 

I like beginning our work on utopias by asking students about the process of definitions (this is actually a lot more fun than it sounds and next week I’ll share a terrific “definitional exercise”). Prescriptive definitions are those that tell us (or prescribe) what defines something and descriptive definitions are those that describe the way things are used.  Most dictionaries walk a line between these two approaches to defining meaning but there are GRAMMAR MAVENS and other extremists who believe with jihadist fervor in PRESCRIPTIVE DEFINITIONS and there are those whose lack of precision is so extreme that getting to any meaning is difficult.  We’ll use the word “utopia” to refer to texts that posit an alternative fictional world conforming in some way to the 7 elements below; the sub-genres “eutopia,” and “dystopia” we’ll use to refer to those texts where we understand that the author intends to show the society as attractive or horrific. 

Judging authorial intent is really difficult—even some authors (Wells, Swift) are ambivalent about their worlds.

We are going to lean more towards a descriptive definition of utopia includes the following 7 elements (though this is NOT a math exercise where we say that “if we achieve 4 of the 7 elements we have a UTOPIA” etc.):

1)     Utopias practice dislocation in time or place.

This requires almost no commentary.  Utopias are about the “not now” and/or “not here.”  This is one way that utopias are related to SF (both science fiction and speculative fiction). Plato constructs the Republic (or has Socrates construct it) as a thought experiment; Thomas More has Hythlodae travel to foreign lands (on earth); Wells takes people to the moon.  But there are utopias of the underworld, the future, and the past. Utopias are also related to fairy tales and to religion and mythology–the Garden of Eden or the Golden Age are important as are concepts of Heaven and Hell and Elysian fields.

2)     Utopias demonstrate explicit concerns about justice, governance, authority, and politics.

Even more than literary-political novels, utopias are texts of ideas about these topics.  They are close to satire and social criticism and often go back and forth between the two. I often think that Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo may be the finest literary-political novel ever written or that Graham Greene has written some terrific literary-political novels; but I think of Orwell’s 1984  or Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale as political-literary novels. That’s one reason why Conrad and Greene are rarely thought of as utopists but Orwell and Atwood are.

3) Utopias make directive assumptions about human nature.

A)     Hobbes (evil), Locke (tabula rasa), Rousseau (good) are one way of thinking about this.  As I wrote about human nature and these guys just a couple of weeks ago I’ll give just a brief version and two other ways of approaching this quality of utopias.  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, life is “nasty, brutish and short,” humans are essentially evil, despotism (1984).  John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1692 tabula rasa, democracy (maybe LeGuin’s Anarres from The Dispossessed?) Jean Jacques Rousseau Emile, Social Contract 1762, humans are basically good, romantic, anarchy (William Morris, News from Nowhere)

B)    The Pelagians and the Augustinians. I usually go with this one–Pelagius (360-420) and St. Augustine (354-430) were contemporaries and seem to have known each other.  Pelagius argued that humans have free will and divine grace merely helps a Christian accomplish what is in his power without it.  Pelagius argues that “ability limits obligation”—there can be no sin without free will. So, no original sin since we weren’t free to prevent it.  He “lost” to St. Augustine and Pelagianism was declared a heresy in 416.  Pelagianism made a comeback in the 14th and 15th century (Thomas More and some Protestant reformers were accused of Pelagianism).  Are all utopists either Pelagians or Augustinians? I’d say so.

BONUS ASSIGNMENT For American lit teachers, use:

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1757) (he believes that humans are basically evil–Hobbes)

Ben Franklin, “Speech at Constitutional Convention” (1789) profound ambivalence regarding future success of government.  In fact, he says that we’ll be able to have a successful government as long as we can educate people but that eventually we will lose our way and despotism will return (tabula rasa— or blank slate–Locke).

Thomas Jefferson, Letters to James Madison and Edward Carrington that indicate humans are by nature good and governments are corrupt! (he admires the “anarchy” of the Indians).  (humans are basically good–Rousseau)

These three thinkers, all working within 30 years of each other and at the founding of the United States, are working with one of the central elements of utopian thinking–a directive assumption about human nature.  It works great; I’ve done it many times. 

4)     Utopias conflate work and play.  Eutopias collapse work into play (Thomas More, William Morris, Rabelais, LeGuin); dystopias conflate play into work (George Orwell, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Margaret Atwood).  Related to this conflation of work and play is the conflation of public life (work and polis) and private life (play and oikos). 

Work is often seen as a public enterprise or obligation and play as a private form of entertainment.  In eutopias, work often becomes play.  In More’s Utopia, all games are designed to teach virtue, in William Morris’ News from Nowhere, there is no “work” only play.  For Ursula LeGuin in The Dispossessed the word for work is the same word for play in the society of Anarres (they use the word kleggich for drudgery.  In Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, the word robot comes from the Czech word for drudgery.  

In dystopias by Yevgeny Zamyatin (We) and George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) there is no play–there is only work. So attitudes towards work and play are revealing as an element of utopian writing and thinking.

I might mention that in Greek society the polis was the domain of men and is the public sphere; the oikos or hearth (a private area) is the domain of women.  So another way of thinking about utopian projects is the expansion of the public into the private world (the telescreen of Orwell or the glass buildings of Zamyatin’s One State–there is NO PRIVACY). One might point out that we have this debate in the forms of GPS on our phones, “cookies” in our computers, cameras on street corners, buildings, etc. (A whole tv show, “Person of Interest,” hinges on this debate.)  In many feminist utopias the public world is the home and the hearth grown large–Charlotte Gilman’s Herland or Margie Piercy’s work. Think of the perversion of family (privacy, the oikos, the hearth) in Orwell’s “Big Brother.”

5) Utopias have powerful educative impulses!

A)   education is the key to establishment and maintenance of utopia (eutopia or dystopia). Plato’s Republic is the first in the long line of utopias which lay out an educational plan so that the utopia can be perpetuated. 

B)  There are good further “educational” questions to be asked–who is being educated?  The central character?  The reader? The society?

Education always calls into question what is “natural”?

Plato tells the noble lie; there are people of gold, silver, bronze (foreshadows Orwell’s Inner party, Outer party and proles or Huxley’s alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons) and the inequality reinforced by education.  For Thomas More, all games should reinforce educational goals. LeGuin spends countless chapters on education in The Dispossessed.

The traveler to the utopia is often being educated (Gulliver being a prime example).  What is natural is called into question?  Does education contravene “nature”? “Education through estrangement” uses a traveler as a norm and then estranges him or her from norms of the traveler’s society—we watch the traveler learn.

Isn’t the reader actually being educated or taught? Whatever their problems with education you have to admire the utopian belief in the power of education.

6)     Utopias are composed of creative and destructive elements.  They imagine a society (creative) and would destroy or replace the present society.  In addition, the texts can be self-destructive, i.e., both eutopias and dystopias posit a world in which they could not or would not be produced. 

In a perfect world, an “eutopia,” what would one write about?  William Morris cannot solve this problem in Nowhere; he says that there are novels about old times but people are querulous about them because they hinge on conflict and there isn’t any in Nowhere.  More and Swift never produce an example of the indigenous literature of the Utopians or the Houyhnhnms (horses–pronounce this “winnims”–like a horse neighing) even though we are told that the literature they produce is sublime.  Dystopias present a different problem—you don’t want people becoming educated and so the production of texts must be controlled—most particularly in Orwell’s 1984 but in Atwood’s Gilead (Handmaid’s Tale) and elsewhere of course.

7)     Utopias adopt iconoclasm in theme and form.  They are most influential when attacking the society in which they are produced and this can date them as topical.

A gifted young teacher I know introduces Utopia by discussing the Gotham city of Batman. I like to begin with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  These two short stories give the students plenty to think about given the 7 elements. 

Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at….”  I agree. Wilde calls our attention to the desire for justice, a better life, and the belief in progress in some way; that’s got to be a good thing.



Filed under 1984, books and learning, critical thinking, dystopia, Hobbes, Human Nature, inferential skills, Jonathan Swift, Locke, pedagogy, pelagianism, popular culture, Rousseau, teaching, Uncategorized, utopias

3 responses to “Utopia–you won’t find it here! But you’ll find several Lesson Plans

  1. Wow, what a fabulous and fascinating post. I love every part and will be printing it out and taking a highlighter to it. I’ll have to seek out that thesis – I wrote one on dystopias and myth. Thanks again.

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