Dystopias and Building Back Better

Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Teaching for social imagination is helping students to question the world we have and envision a better world we could have. Dystopian novels offer unique opportunities to teach these habits of mind. Although these stories are set in the future—often postapocalyptic—thematically they are really about the present.

Steven Wolk, ‘Reading for a Better World: Teaching for Social Responsibility With Young Adult Literature’
A ruined building against a sunrise.

Being Society came into existence for two main reasons: firstly, my own personal interest in Political Philosophy, and, secondly, my experiences working for over a decade with young people, particularly as a teacher, and speaking to them about their own feelings about politics, whether educationally, conversationally, or pastorally.

My academic background is not in Philosophy but in Classics, yet my interest still goes back to my undergraduate education, which included, as the culmination of two years of ancient philosophy, with a module on Plato’s Republic and Utopianism. My PhD, although focussed on Latin poetry, specifically dealt with the idea of story-telling for political propaganda, so some of that early interest continued behind this specific area of study. As a Classics teacher, aspects of ancient philosophy continue to form part of my regular teaching. Nevertheless, I am a lay-person in this field, and I hope that this contributes in a way to why I can argue for the universal importance of some level of political-philosophical understanding as a way of looking critically at society, not merely on an academic level, but as members of that society, citizens who can see how it might be better.

Working in schools, the lack of political awareness among adolescents in the UK was, on the one hand, striking. The importance of understanding the British political system is there in the curriculum, as part of Citizenship; the significance of democracy forms a part of the requirement for schools to teach British Values. And yet there seemed little sense among teenaged pupils that this was anything more than abstract, where it filtered into their learning at all. For many school-aged children, who are unlikely to have the opportunity to vote while still in secondary education, it can doubtless seem irrelevant.

On the other hand, I would find it hard to agree with the common assumption that young people are increasingly apathetic. There is doubtless a level of ignorance among them that schools may do little to dissipate, yet recent years have surely demonstrated that this is true, also, among many of the adult British public. But not, I think, apathy. In fact, the rise in environmental activism among young people as part of the School Strikes is just one example of where they have made a stand where many adults have not. If not politically active, these adolescents by no means lack awareness of society’s shortcomings, at least in certain areas: my experience working with young people pastorally has revealed the rise in existential angst posed by the climate crisis, the trauma of living through a pandemic and its handling, and the ever-more-evident consequences of Brexit, to name just a few obvious sources of concern.

In ‘Engaging “Apolitical” Adolescents: Analyzing the Popularity and Educational Potential of Dystopian Literature Post-9/11’ (2013), Melissa Ames argues that the supposedly apolitical and apathetic youth (at that point – 2013 – the Millennial generation) is highly engaged with political and social ideas, but as manifest in the predominance of young-adult dystopian literature rather than having trust in the ballot box or knowledge of the workings of the parliamentary system. While she was examining this phenomenon in the wake of 9/11 and the particular global success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels, a decade later, the trend seems far from diminishing. Similarly, the pedagogical strategy for teaching civic responsibility and engagement through interaction with and discussion of ideas as presented through the lens of YA fiction that was propagated by Wolk, in the 2009 article ‘Reading for a Better World’, seems as relevant as ever.

Recent years have seen the continued popularity of the Hunger Games franchise, alongside a proliferation of dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives in fiction (not exclusively YA), film, and video games. The popularity of these among Generation Z, as well as the now-adult Millennial Generation with whom the genre first began to gain in its huge successes, remains significant. Therefore, the argument that the mirror such stories offer for current events, fears, and societal needs is itself a reflection of important concerns held by the stories’ audiences holds true.

I argue that while dystopian narratives may seem to reflect the most devastating outcomes for a society that heads in one direction or another to a fictional worst-case-scenario, it is through such stories that young people may identify where their fears about society and its trajectories lie, and, perhaps most importantly, what a society might look like if one were able to start over, even from the lowest possible point. It is through dissecting dystopias, and following the heroes of the stories seeking better futures, that, if not utopias, then certainly a version of a more just society may be identified.

This is one aspect of what I hoped to achieve with Being Society. While I shall write elsewhere about the pedagogical advantages of the simulation game model in particular, the premise rests on the conversations I have had with students in response to the dystopian books, films, and games they have enjoyed. Together we have been able to ask questions about one catastrophic or apocalyptic event or another, not so much from the perspective of that event, but rather what comes out of it. How, if offered a tabula rasa by societal collapse, might one build back better?

In Being Society, the apocalyptic event or former dystopian situation is not specified. While doubtless its particularities may be argued to have consequences for the survivors in our story, it’s not my intention that students get too bogged down in questions about whether it was zombies, or nuclear war, or AI, or (as in Yahtzee Croshaw’s brilliant novel) flesh-eating jam, that led to a group of exiles seeking shelter in the compound. If students want to choose their apocalypse, so be it.

What really matters, however, is the fact that these survivors have been given a chance to start over, and create a society that isn’t bound by pre-existing conventions or leaders. It’s not quite a state-of-nature situation, which raises its own challenges beyond which one or even a term’s worth of lessons may not progress, but rather one that asks: if resources and core needs are not the main issue at stake, how would you most like society to be? Furthermore, it asks students to look through the eyes of others, with their own particular strengths and needs, and see society through their potential experiences.

The goals of Being Society may therefore be broken down into three key areas:

  • to encourage students to use a microcosm within the game to explore issues that also exist in their real society, much as enjoying a dystopian story might effect;
  • to provide students with a framework for viewing society beyond their own situation, and promote empathy for the situation of others;
  • to give students a sense of agency that may translate into political awareness and activity in their lives beyond the classroom.

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