by Malka Fleischmann
It’s different than 13 Reasons Why, the stomach-churning teen drama that launched countless counter-curricula, often entitled “13 Reasons Why Not.” That car wreck, however gut-wrenching and provocative it was, glorified all sorts of grizzly abuses and mental health issues that required far more support and adult-guided discussion than Netflix’s laughably hackable parental controls afford.
The Society, on the other hand, if at points violent and primitive, powerfully opens itself to curriculum development that could energize a course in social sciences, religious studies or philosophy without leaving its students utterly gutted and lost.
In short, when a local public health concern launches a week-long high school camping trip, a couple hundred teens say goodbye to their families and board buses to the mountains while their parents address the town’s problems. Soon after departure, a storm forces the buses to return, and the gob smacked teens are horrified to discover that their town has been emptied of all its inhabitants. No one can reach family members, and the kids soon discover that there seem to be no signs of life or open roads beyond their town’s borders.
Soon, the myriad threats, needs and hopes emergent from the lawless blank canvas of their lives become apparent, and we watch as the teens create something from nothing.
When the class president takes it upon herself to encourage the teens to share food and resources, we witness the first demonstrations of resistance and alliance formation. Others would rather keep what’s theirs.
Enter questions of fairness, ownership and leadership. Enter the battle between the value of equality and the weight that we inexplicably assign to different human lives.
Then, when the first student dies—because, of course, without proper healthcare professionals and optimal communication, lives are bound to be lost—we witness another student take her place as the spiritual center of the community, praying over the dead body before it’s laid to rest.
Throughout the season, we watch as government forms, elections take place, committees convene, long-held traditions such as Thanksgiving, prom and movie night are observed, and prayer services are held. We witness young women become prominent leaders and have to defend their right to authority. We marvel as scientifically-inclined young minds do their best to offer their peers medical expertise, and we’re hopeful when the first expedition in search of farmable land enters the darkened woods.
In today’s religious and political schemes, so much is given and long-established. But what if, for a moment, it weren’t? What if teachers—or even whole schools—gifted their students the challenge of a blank canvas?
Imagine opening-day in September. As students claim seats, the teacher silently assumes a desk towards the back of the room. The first bell rings. Then the second. Giggling and whispering until one student tentatively ventures a question. “Are we going to have class?” Maybe the teacher says, “I don’t know.” Maybe she remains quiet. Or maybe, instead, at the opening assembly of the year, the principal says that she and the staff are leaving the school in students’ hands, enacting an in-residence sort of sabbatical, bearing witness, but without intervention. The stage is open for those willing to take it.
Would religious schools retain their particular spiritual practices? Or would the students of today seek something more universal? Would there be invented ritual? Would some fight for preservation of custom?
Who would take power? Who would earn it? Would rivalries form? Would expected social and political philosophies dictate norms or would there be revolution?
Would recognizable gender dynamics take root? Or would there be more fluidity and less traditional expressions of male and female roles?
What and how much would students learn, and how would they acquire their knowledge? What would be their educational priorities, and what would those teach us about where we’ve wrongly turned?
If left to their own devices, what would students learn about the values of community and friendship? How would they provide for themselves—their food, their exercise, their education and their general wellbeing? Would they divide by chosen vocation or share responsibilities? Would, with all the freedom in the world granted them, their world fall into irreparable chaos?
It’s not as if this dystopian model is fresh. We’ve seen it elsewhere, in novels and films. But, as long as our students are living on a strict diet of Netflix and social media, we may as well speak their language and take advantage of the great educational materials streaming in our direction.
Enjoy the show, and happy curriculum planning.
Malka Fleischmann is Director of Knowledge and Ideas at the Jewish Education Project.
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