Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut: Dystopia toward a Better World

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward. -Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Today is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s birthday (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007).

We're big fans of his writing at our house. His dark wit was born not only of frustration and humor but also, I think (as with good speculative fiction in general), with a view toward having the reader revisit uncomfortable issues and take a closer look. Reframe. Look again and work harder. And ultimately make things better in the "real" world.

If you aren't familiar with Vonnegut's writing--or wonder what it might have to do with gifted kids--check out his dystopian take on intellectual elitism in the short story "Harrison Bergeron".

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.   -from "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It's a scary world if the law is that everyone must be the same, even worse when Diana Moon-Glampers enforces it. Certainly some GT kids relate to the frustration that the story's brings to the fore. Although set in a nasty fictional place, Vonnegut's story also offers a venue to explore truths about identity and expectations.

Worth a read and a discussion. And thinking about how to apply truths from fiction to make the world we live in better.


  1. I've often wondered about the wide appeal of dystopian literature to gifted readers? Do we (unfortunately) identify closely with the characters or the plots of these fictional works? Whatever it is, I'd have to save that a majority of my top ten favorite reads are dystopian in nature. :)

  2. This is a great story that I use every year in my sixth grade ELA class. Two extensions that you can try:

    Start a Socratic Seminar with "Why a shotgun?" It may take the students awhile, but they will begin to make the connection that equality has stunted innovation.

    The second is for students to brainstorm five personal traits that they are proud of and then how authority's restrict the use of those traits/talents.

    Students then come up with creative handicaps to illustrate that the restrictions maybe physical or mental or emotional. To conclude their work students need to think of ways they may handicap others.

    This makes a nice lead in to the bullying action plans that students work on in seventh grade on my campus.