• July 29, 2014

Surviving the Next Apocalypse: a Modest Curriculum

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Tim Foley for The Chronicle

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Tim Foley for The Chronicle

There's nothing like an apocalypse to renew our feelings of optimism.

I remember looking forward to Y2K on New Year's Eve in 1999; I stayed up late, waiting for civilization to end, but nothing happened. Windows 98 went on working, as well as it ever did.

Apocalypticism goes back a long way in the Christian tradition, and it's especially strong in the United States. Puritans such as Michael Wigglesworth—author of the poem "The Day of Doom"—believed they were living in the last days. Later, ministers such as Jonathan Edwards exhorted their congregations to accept salvation before time ran out. In 1843, about 100,000 Millerites were planning for the end of the world between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When it didn't come, they moved the date to October 22, a day remembered by believers as "The Great Disappointment."

Those may have been good times, but I think we are living in the real Golden Age of Apocalypses. The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich, was published the year I was born: Famines were predicted for my childhood and adolescence, and it was already too late to avoid them, Ehrlich warned. Meanwhile, there was a hole in the ozone layer, and it was growing fast. Pesticides were working their way up the food chain. Killer bees were crossing the southern border. And, if we were lucky, all of those problems might have been solved by the comet Kohoutek, which was supposed to slam into the Earth in 1973. My teenage years—continuing a theme going back to the 50s—were preoccupied by the possibility of a full nuclear exchange; if we survived till The Day After, we'd slowly starve in the nuclear winter that followed.

Nowadays, it seems like every fifth movie or novel has an apocalyptic theme. For a long time I was reading students' essays on Tim LaHaye and the Left Behind novels on premillennial dispensationalism: the belief that the saved will be "raptured" into heaven, leaving the rest of us here to deal with the great tribulation before the Second Coming. The Christian radio personality Harold Camping said the rapture would occur between 1994 and 2011. Nothing happened on his chosen date, May 21, 2011—as far as I can tell—so he moved it to October 21, which didn't seem to work out, either.

No population in human history, I would bet, is more ready to embrace the end of the world than ours.

I last got caught up in an apocalypse enthusiasm back in 2005. It was not long after the 2001 terrorist attacks and anthrax scares; there were warnings about global water shortages and disruptions of the food supply and the electrical grid, and the World Health Organization was projecting 10 million deaths from bird flu. I had just taught about the 1918 flu pandemic in one of my classes, and I was the father of three young children.

After seeing some terrifying news reports, I ordered an emergency-preparedness handbook and followed the guidelines. I stockpiled a two-month supply of canned goods and bottled water. I even created a "bug-out kit," with first-aid materials, cooking supplies, high-calorie foods, and a crank radio. A year later, I was disappointed to find that mice had eaten the chocolate bars and nuts. On the other hand, they had not touched the big plastic jug of vodka (something I should check on before I continue this essay).

So it's been very disappointing to learn that the Mayans were mistaken about December 22.

If we're not careful, I think many of us will begin to suffer from apocalypse fatigue—a sense of boredom and acquiescence about the end of the world. Our safe rooms and bug-out kits will be forgotten, with serious consequences for the economy.

If American culture is going to survive, we need to remain obsessed about the apocalypse, and higher education has an important role to play.

Examples abound. Last fall Stuart Charmé, a professor of religion at Rutgers University at Camden, was surprised at the excitement generated by his course on the apocalypse: "I didn't realize this was going to be the most apocalyptic semester that has ever been," he told a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. "If you look at what's been going on in the world today, as we're down to 30 days and counting, this has been a really good time. And remember that bad is good for the apocalyptically minded." There are a few pioneers teaching similar "wildly popular" courses at other universities, the newspaper reported.

Obviously, given this surge in student demand, we need to make survivalist education another distinctive feature of our educational mission, and we must scramble to build institutional capacity in "apocalypse preparedness." The admissions office already has brochures: "Where would you send your child: someplace that prepares them for a 20th-century job, or a community that prepares them to survive the 21st century? Our Mission: Leadership and Service After the Global Apocalypse." This Lasaga program could be sustained by several wealthy, local donors who want us to be the No. 1 survivalist college in the nation and see no contradiction between that and the liberal arts.

Given that we haven't tried this before, a few hours watching the History Channel and playing Sid Meier's Civilization would give the program directors a good start at developing the curriculum:

  • Water: finding, purifying, storing, and branding.
  • Food: hunting and gathering, agriculture, and wankery.
  • Clothing: tanning, sewing, weaving, and catwalking.
  • Metalworking: bronze, copper, iron, and bling.
  • Medicine: midwifery, dentistry, general surgery, and tattoo removal.
  • Politics: brute force, oratory, representation, and tax cuts.
  • Trade: bartering, currency, banking, and derivatives.
  • Religion: mysticism, polytheism, hats, and monotheism.
  • Storytelling: poems, myths, heroes, and M.F.A. programs.

Anyway, you get the idea. Based on our experience developing an interdisciplinary sequence in "Western civilization," this effort might take a few meetings. Some things could get left out of a disorganized curriculum—consider brewing—with serious consequences for future generations, and I'm sure readers will remind me what has been overlooked.

For their senior capstone projects, students at my own campus could be set loose in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (or any other place beyond the reach of civilization), reducing our facilities costs substantially.

In order to graduate, the students could rendezvous to submit their pelts and precious metals to the business-services office for letter grades. Mere survival could be a pass/fail option. Unlike some institutions, we would set rigorous benchmarks: The 20 percent who won't survive the Lasaga program would be an investment in the 80 percent who do.

As students become more proficient—and come to expect that a good college experience is potentially life-threatening—we could scale up the difficulty to maintain that ratio.

As always, the problem with any innovative program will be motivating tenured faculty members to adopt new approaches. I grant you that most endowed chairs will balk at giving up teaching Shakespeare's tragedies for a course on starting fires; on the other hand, the course could easily incorporate readings in Jack London.

Keep reminding the faculty that the traditional curriculum is "unsustainable in the face of contemporary survival imperatives." In a few generations, most of the extraneous material—i.e., the history and science of the last 5,000 years—slowly will be forgotten. The process can be accelerated by building a culture of rigorous outcomes assessment.

More immediately, the place to implement the 21st-century survivalist curriculum will be among the untenured and contingent instructors. Most will adapt fairly quickly to the new system, given their experience teaching anything that's needed, finding food, and living without permanent lodging.

Once a postapocalyptic program becomes more entrenched—and students are clamoring for advanced courses in the wielding of atlatls, perhaps you can persuade your administration and colleagues to make a tenure-track hire.

Normally, the hire will need to be based in a traditional department, but there are ways to deal with that. For example, you could advertise for someone who specializes in Cormac McCarthy with secondary interests in animal husbandry. That sort of thing is done in the MLA job list all the time. The trend may catch on, and, before long, higher-education pundits will be warning terrified graduate students: "No AH, No Interview."

As I gear up for Phase I by burning all of my books, I have already started to memorize Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. In my favorite chapter, a character says, "Such is life that none are happy but by the anticipation of change."

That, most of all, is the promise of our program. The destruction of higher education—and civilization as we know it—is not a bad thing; it's creative, and creativity is always good.

Think of what life will be like when all college graduates have spent long stretches of time wondering whether they'll survive the next season. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you more excellent.

Unfortunately, without the dire necessity that only a real apocalypse can offer, I suspect that most colleges are too obsessed with the digital humanities right now to get involved in the Next Big Thing: Collaborative Survivalist Pedagogy (CSP).

For some of us, it only makes sense to prepare for the End Times, and the American educational ecosystem surely has space for a program that prepares its students for that inevitability. The rest of you will want our services before long; we'll let you know if we have any spaces available.

In the meantime, there's a chance the Mayans miscalculated by a few months, so I may not respond to your e-mail for a while. I do most of my academic work on Twitter anyway, which, I am sure you'll agree, is yet another sign of the end of civilization.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. Many of his previous columns were published under a pseudonym, Thomas H. Benton. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.

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