Monday, December 20, 2010

Last Thoughts on Utopia

I just finished grading the final papers for my Philosophy through Literature class, structured around the search for utopia. This time I followed the advice given to me years ago by one of our graduate student instructors, who said that he made it his practice to assign papers that he would enjoy reading. So I gave my students the option for their final project either to write a traditional analytic paper or to write a creative paper in which they designed their own utopia. To my great pleasure, more than half chose to share with me their version of a perfect world.

So I read about Prairie, a society that embraces the whole of human feeling and welcomes even negative emotions as a sign of being fully alive - Ataraxia, the land of tranquility (you have to pass a test of character to be admitted to residence there) - a libertarian utopia set in Somalia in the year 2060 - Cloud 10, an artistic and environmental paradise up in the sky - Gaia, based on empathetic spirituality - Atlantis, settled only by the hand-picked intelligentsia - Treeopia, where happiness is achieved not through material possessions, but through art. Although my students voted overwhelmingly, on our last day of class, to live in our world rather than any of the utopias we visited together, I myself am ready to sign up right now for Ataraxia or Treeopia - that is, if they will take me.

The downside of giving students an interesting paper topic is that they will rise to the occasion and produce truly wonderful papers, and then I'll have to give them high grades on these papers, and our chair will send us another memo about how we need to hold fast against grade inflation. But the upside is that I get to spend the last days of the semester reading papers that are truly worth reading and that make me feel that the course I taught was truly worth teaching. I think I'll go with the upside on this one.

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