Kurt Vonnegut, the beloved science fiction novelist we have to thank for "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Cat's Cradle" would have turned 91 today.
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For nearly four decades I taught one of the very few courses dedicated to satire offered in American high schools. It was an academic course with some pretty entertaining candy-coating that made the medicinal intake more palatable than other attempts to "less" disguised lectures and sermons focused upon insisting that humanity must reduce the extensive damage to us all brought about by the vices and follies of mankind; and to emphasize the great need for increasing the counterbalancing effects of virtue and wisdom. We read Swift, Voltaire, Twain, Orwell, and always ended the course with Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.
There was always sufficient enrollment for this elective course to require that I teach it in 90 minute blocks two or three times a day. The course was pretty popular even to those who hadn't expected satire to be challenging.
On the first day of class I promised them that they would never be asked in a job interview a single question about any of the books we would be reading. And on the first day of class I also gave them an three "homework" assignments I gave that day; the third of which, would be due no sooner that a week before or a week after the tenth anniversary of the first Friday of the first week of the course. I joked about changing their grade if they failed to do the assignment. I pretended to be extremely serious about the two-week window within which the assigment would be accepted as I explained that by the due date, many of them would have had much more experience with the impact of vices and follies of the real world; divorce, crime, confronting their own unrecognized gullibility, some might even be dead and thereby the only students who would have an exceptable excuse for not completing the assignment.
That third assignment was that I expected them to contact me to let me know if I had succeeded in keeping my promise to make the satire class the hardest class they ever loved; not because it was hard but because it turned out in retrospect to be one of the most valuable classes they'd ever taken including any post high school courses they might have taken.
It was beyond presumptuous on my part, and I told them so on that first day. But, I explained that even though I could not hope to accomplish that goal for each of them, that I had made my intention public and therefore I could not get past day one without knowing that I had a reason to "make it true" even if I went in knowing that I would fail.
Among my many intentions that day was to "rock their boats" a bit. Perhaps most often the most visible body language conveyed a message something like, "OMG! What have I gotten myself into??? I'm a senior! I was looking for a class I could cruise through!"
The second most common body language communicated something like, "What were my friends thinking when they told me to take this course?"
Though Swift's Gulliver's Travels and "A Modest Proposal..." could be quite challenging reading for today's (and yesterday's) students, His works, the works of a minister no less, were tantalizingly engaging.
Even Voltaire's Candide, though short and written with a clear intent to be over the top funny, could be challenging given his blend of eloquent straight faced yet hilariously disarming attack on human vice and folly.
Twain's "The War Prayer" and the lesser known Prince and the Pauper, its American parallel Pudd'nhead Wilson, and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court ridiculed pretty serious issues that had clear relevance to the modern world.
But, ironically, it was Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle saved for the course's finale that challenged their ability to dig deeply into the deceptively "simple" language that created an incredibly and intriguing multi-faceted articulation of the universal themes that all satirists have at the core of their intention. The irony not only in that Vonnegut requires virtually no lteracy skills beyond the most basic decoding skills, but that in spite of the tremendous depth that he managed using such "simple" language, he was for the longest time considered "Well, not really an A-List author" by the canon-addicted literati.
So, " 'as it happened, as it was meant to happen,' Bokonon would say" Vonnegut was mentioned often in those 10 year assignments that to this day arrive on a fairly regular basis. Though, I do not see the body language in those emails, tweets, and occasional face-to-face or facebook-to-facebook encounters, the message most often conveyed is something like, "You know Mr. Burg, there was a lot I thought I learned in Satire about how to think, but over the ten years you asked us to wait, I came to realize how relevant to the real world all that humor was."
And, so on this day which would have been Vonnegut's 91st birthday, I say "Thank You Mr. Vonnegut. Thank you for teaching me a whole lot about teaching."
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