In the 1960 film adaptation of the H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” a man from Victorian England travels to the distant future where he discovers the desiccated remains of books amongst the ashen ruins of a long-forgotten library. The child-like denizens of this seemingly idyllic future society, called the Eloi, live care-free lives of hedonism, unencumbered by the harrowing self-reflection that is often the beautifully-tragic byproduct of literacy. However, beneath this veritable future Eden, there dwells a race of monstrous creatures called the Morlocks who use the ignorant, blissful, surface dwellers as cattle — literally; they eat them. Perhaps it would be premature to start battening down the hatches to defend against the next Morlock attack; but one need only follow the shockingly ignorant and grammatically impaired comments on any given youtube video to feel that the future of literacy and critical thinking is imperiled. Wells’s not- so- subtle symbolism aside, as an English teacher it can be tempting to view this generation as becoming more and more like the Eloi and, consequently, more opportune prey for the corporate, government, and infotainment Morlocks of the world. But are they? Is our current crop of youngsters really hurdling blissfully and ignorantly towards a bookless, illiterate future? The answer, thankfully, is resoundingly no!
What I have discovered about these so-call digital-natives is that, far from being reading averse, they are actually consuming more written information, ideas, and stories than probably any generation prior. The profusion of mediums through which students consume writing, much of it digital, may seem to be a precursor to Wells’s charred, forgotten libraries; however, a library is just a building – a sagacious and venerable building to be sure – but its demise would be no more an indicator of waning literacy than the loss of a church to a hurricane signifying the loss of God’s presence. Perhaps the real concern is one of quality over quantity. Sure, students might be reading more, but if that reading is dominated by the derivative fan-fiction of a gregarious dilatant (“50 Shades of Grey “ anyone) , or the paint-by-numbers adventure of yet another teen protagonist in a cliché dominated dystopian future, then it may be a case of them simply becoming a more literate version of the Eloi. Don’t misunderstand me, I love fun trash just as much as my younger millennial compatriots. But our mission in the English department has to be to provide students with thought-provoking, world-challenging literature that enlightens as well as entertains.
From the horrific and inhuman death camps of Nazi Germany presented in Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to the mean streets of a segregated Chicago in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, Verb students are engaging literature that presents complex characters in difficult situations. The conversations that I have been a part of concerning those titles, as well as many others, reassures me that our digital-natives are not destined to be either Eloi or Morlock, but rather true exemplars of a grad at grad. Importantly, it’s not just the anointed titles of the so-called cannon that are being thoroughly analyzed and discussed on an advanced level, but the contemporary work of tomorrow’s cannon.
Being open to the inclusion of great writing from an increasingly diverse, dynamic, and digitally-based pool of writers is the key to making reading relevant and meaningful to our students. I am pleased to report that the English department has taken great strides in this direction as each teacher looks for new and innovative ways to reconcile the analogue and digital domains of today’s literary landscape. The sheer quantity of stuff out there is mindboggling and with so much drivel cluttering up the interwebs it can seem as though the age of the Morlocks is nigh. However, each day I am encouraged and emboldened by what I see and hear when students connect with great stories old and new.