For Some Educators, Dystopian Literature Takes On New Meaning in Classrooms
In recent weeks, a bevy of dystopian novels have been creeping up the bestseller charts. On Tuesday, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was Amazon's No. 1 book, bumping George Orwell's 1984 down to third place after it held a spot at the very top of Amazon's overall bestseller list last week. Other popular dystopian fiction follows close behind: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis the 23rd overall bestseller on Amazon on Wednesday, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was 66th.
These tales—set in the future with imagined economic or environmental collapse, authoritarian governments, or dysfunctional societies—aren't new. 1984 was published 67 years ago; Brave New World came out in 1932. Both novels are classics often found on required reading lists for high school curricula.
But the uptick in sales is higher than normal. A spokesman for Penguin told CNN that reprints for a new school semester are not unusual, but the publishing company increased the reprint of 1984 to 75,000 copies last week. (The Handmaid's Tale is coming to Hulu as a show in April, which could explain some of the book's increased interest.) Another possible reason for the spike in dystopian reading? For some readers, it may offer understanding or reminders of the current political climate.
At President Donald Trump's inauguration, some teachers and students had hope for changes in Washington's power dynamic under Trump, they told my colleague Andrew Ujifusa. Others were afraid Trump would aggravate political tension and division. According to The Hill, after Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway used the term "alternative facts" to describe the administration's overestimation of inauguration crowds, many social media users referenced Orwell's "doublethink" from 1984—two opposing facts both pronounced true by the government.
On the plus side, teaching 1984 is really easy now (until it's banned). I'm not getting any of the "when are we gonna use this?" questions.— Francis Daulerio (@FDWrites) February 2, 2017
The resurgence of popular dystopian books is due in part to how people would talk about Trump's speeches as both a candidate and a president, said Claire P. Curtis, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who teaches dystopian thought. "He would use phrases and ways of capturing what the United States was like that are not dissimilar from how these novels would describe a dystopian present."
And for teachers, many of whom have taught dystopian literature in classes for years, this reemergence of dystopian literature en masse means looking at the topic with fresh eyes.
Carolyn Geraci, a 7th grade reading teacher at Hamilton Middle School in Houston, is currently teaching A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury. Though the book is not strictly dystopian, Geraci is helping her students connect the text with the real world to build understanding of personal responsibility; how their words and actions can affect others; and how small effects can cause large changes.
"We just elected a president that is making sweeping changes," Geraci wrote in an email to Education Week Teacher. "Most of these changes are making people angry. People see the protests, hear the angry words, and wonder what will happen next. I think dystopian lit provides a way for people to think about the future, even if it is in a negative fashion. After reading, we can look around and say 'That will not happen here,' to assuage our fears."
Geraci prefers short stories over novels when it comes to dystopian literature—ones that fall into a social science fiction category and "allow us to delve into our thoughts on social issues," she wrote. Her personal favorites are Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut and There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury. She has often taught the young adult novel The Giver by Lois Lowry, but also includes The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld.
If you are a high school English teacher and can get The Handmaid's Tale into your syllabus, now would be a great time.— sarah maclean (@sarahmaclean) January 29, 2017
So what are some of the best ways teachers can incorporate dystopian literature into the classroom?
Curtis recommends posing the following questions to students to help them move from thinking about what is bad for them personally to what is bad in their community and country: If you had to name three problems facing our society, what would they be? If you had to image a world where problems were worse, what would it look like? And because dystopia is often connected to utopia and imagining what a better world would look like: A radically better world is one where___.
A few other book recommendations in addition to the classics:
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which critiques corporate culture (for high school)
- Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, covering issues of race and class (high school)
- Brave New Worlds anthology, a collection of dystopian short stories with authors such as Paulo Bacchi Galope, Orson Scott Card, and Ursula LeGuin (upper middle/high school)
- The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (middle school)
A 2010 post about the rise of dystopian literature on Education Week's former Book Whisperer blog by Donalyn Miller, a language arts teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a reminder that students have loved exploring dystopian worlds for quite some time—and not because it may remind them of current events.
"My students love these books because they love good stories," Miller wrote. "Action-packed battles between good and evil forces, strange, futuristic worlds, protagonists who fight for what's right when the adults in their lives can't or won't—it's great storytelling stuff."