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Utopia Dystopia

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.


Today's guest blogger is Mary-Grace Gannon, who currently teaches AP® English Language and freshman English at Xavier High School in New York City. In her 17 years of teaching, she has taught at all levels from elementary to middle to high school. She is also a reader for the AP® Language exam.

Last week, the PEN World Voices Festival came to New York and provided a great opportunity to bring AP® Language students to free talks. “Utopia and Dystopia: Geographies of the Possible” with Inga Kuznetsova, Jonathan Lethem, Eshkol Nevo, and Andrzej Stasiuk was a wonderful follow up to my class’s recent read of Brave New World, a book that I have been reading for years with students with great success. Huxley’s argument is powerful and eerie in its prescience nearly eighty years after publication and engenders fascinating classroom discussion.

Taking students to this discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center was an added bonus this year. Now that the video of the conversation is online, the next time we read Brave New World I would choose highlights as the authors address the questions surrounding the concept of a utopia, and my students can “enter the conversation,” as they say.

If there is only time for one short part of the hour-plus video, the question posed at the end of the video (1:04:50) can be used on its own and perhaps as an introduction or warm-up for the classroom discussion. Inga Kuznetsova discusses her experience as a writer living in Russia, one of the “great utopias of the 20th century,” beginning at 15:50. Eshkol Nevo describes his novel, Homesick, (22:48) now on Israeli high school reading lists, and he later (58:43) speaks about the power of the word on the world, the power to enable one to experience the “perspective of the other.”

Hearing the voices of writers from Poland, Russia, Israel, and America discussing writing gives students perspective and heightens awareness that the freedom to speak and write that many take for granted is precious and sought after in many parts of the world. By extension, students may imagine and perhaps become interested in exploring how writers today are treated in China, Iran, North Korea and other rule-bound and other non-democratic countries. The idea that a utopia is necessarily “very rule-bound” (48:00) is a thoughtful idea to wrestle with, and one that Huxley himself so aptly presents in his novel.

P.S. For those who are thinking about teaching this book next year, there are thirteen excellent questions for a student run discussion at the website, Reading Group Guides.  I love to sit back and just listen to a student-run discussion of the book. I appoint a discussion moderator and provide students with a list of a half dozen questions and then just let them go. Enjoy!

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