Whether or not my senioritis-stricken students are getting anything out of it I can't be certain, but my seminar on political literature has given me a great opportunity to re-read some of The Classics. This week we're doing The Jungle. Everyone is assigned it at some point and I doubt many people read it. That's a shame.
The reason it's important goes beyond its rather ham-fisted message – Oliver Stone took most of his lessons in subtlety from Upton Sinclair – to accomplish things its author never intended. Sinclair lamented the fact that the message about socialism was largely lost on his audience. Not many people seemed concerned with the workers, whereas most readers were in an uproar about food safety. The author gave all of the characters flaws in order to make them more believable. As a consequence, many readers were more apt to moralize about personal responsibility than to sympathize with the extent to which the characters were brutally and systematically destroyed. Stop me if that sounds familiar.
Post-1980 America is a land in which it is impossible to engage in a discussion about a System with college-aged people without inevitably and almost immediately devolving into mini-soliloquies on Good and Bad choices. Why have so many kids? Why did he start drinking? And they signed a contract without reading the whole thing! Everyone knows not to do that.
This is what I mean when I describe college students, when I'm forced to generalize, as extremely conservative. They aren't necessarily hardcore political conservatives in the context of Washington politics, but they have thoroughly internalized the message that their parents and the media have been hammering them with since birth: everything that happens to you is your fault. There are no innocent victims of anything. This is a coping mechanism / cognitive bias called the Just World Phenomenon, wherein people victim-blame as a means of coping with the random cruelty of the world. Rather than accept that horrible things happen to good people – and, thus, that a horrible fate could befall them at any moment – people choose to retreat into the comforts of believing that everyone Had It Coming.
These are young adults who believe sincerely that since they have made Good Choices, nothing bad can happen to them for reasons beyond their control. The idea of being unemployed is literally incomprehensible to many of them – I'm in college and I even get decent grades, of course someone is going to hire me. This is where, as critics both liberal and conservative have often moaned, the constant self-esteem building of kids born in the 1990s shows its ugly side. Each student tends to believe that he or she is special and smart and the world, being a meritocracy, cannot fail to recognize this. Some of this simply is the normal naivety of youth that only life experience can erase. I honestly believe, strictly as a matter of opinion, that the hyper-individualism that dominates post-Carter politics is influential as well.
Sometimes I try to push back when this rears its head in the classroom, despite the obvious futility. What if your job gets outsourced to Asia? Well, I would never enter a field where that could happen, or I would Get More Education and change fields. Oh, I see. That should do it. It does not occur to them that their employers will be able to cornhole them with abandon, as they see themselves and unique, irreplaceable, and thus able to dictate their own terms. If they don't like it, they can quit and find another job. How hard could that be? They see the bleakness of the economy all around them, yet they see themselves as impervious to it.
This is the real value of reading The Jungle for kids of this generation – the message about unions and socialism may be lost on them, but it's hard to miss the message that shit happens. Bad things are going to happen to you. People are going to screw you and you won't be able to do anything about it. As you age, the market will do all that it can to purge you from the workforce. You will get sick. The fine print Terms & Conditions that no one, anywhere, ever reads will bite you in the ass at the worst possible times. There is much we can do to prepare ourselves to weather everything that life is going to throw at us, but we can't make ourselves invincible.
This is a generation that sees everything they do wrong as someone else's fault but everything that happens to other people as a matter of personal responsibility. Reading a tale of hard working, well intentioned people getting reamed by a corrupt system even as they work themselves to literal death might be an eye-opener. Sure, it will sail right over the heads of some of them. I feel, though, that the understanding that the world is not fair, life is hard, and getting by is often a tremendous struggle is a necessary precondition to having meaningful political attitudes. The idea that everything that happens to individuals in our society is their own fault poisons our entire culture, from our politics to our communities. People like Sinclair saw through this over a century ago, but somewhere along the way we chose to forget.