10 April 2010

Teaching Values (Whenever Opportunity Knocks)

A few days ago, one of my classes got on the subject of “end of the world” scenarios. It was the result of discussing the end of Fahrenheit 451 – one of the novels I had students read this spring. Teaching literature is a wonderful thing because there are many times where I have no idea where the conversation will lead. Two interesting topics came up: why people find end of times scenarios so engrossing and choosing between common values and material goods.

The end of Fahrenheit 451 is somewhat apocalyptic; the society is ruined by a massive attack – one would assume that the other side was as well – and the main character, Montag, and his newfound friends move to help pick up the pieces. This discussion brought up the theory, and the movie, regarding 2012. Students noted that like the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, it was not the end of the world in the movie. It was more of a starting over “from scratch.” I put that in quotes because there really is no chance that such a thing could happen. We always have memory, history, and mores to pull our past into our present, to project our present into our future.

And yet, it seems a frequent human desire to “start from scratch,” to happen upon or create a societal tabula rasa. Perhaps it happens when there is anxiety about the future, when folks aren’t quite sure in which way history is taking them and their culture. Perhaps it happens when there is a loss of hope or a feeling of certainty of rough times ahead. The students and I talked about these things and it lead directly to the second topic.

One student commented, in response to this discussion, that the outside world could be wiped clean, so to speak, as long as luxuries that ensure personal comfort were not affected. While this is a very teenager thing to say, I posed a somewhat unfair question, but for a purpose. I asked if the student had to choose between a “destroyed” society keeping their material comforts or a common set of social values – in our case, American values: liberty, e pluribus unum, in God we trust – which would the student choose. The student chose material comforts. I thought it would go that way. So I closed off the discussion by making the point that a society with only shared material comforts will most likely lose those. However, a society whose people have shared values such as our American values can, over time, create material comforts (as well as provide security and foster community). This is a point which young folks may forget; indeed, may forget often. But adults must always remember and teach, and remember and teach.

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