Chapter 20: God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut: Learning Civics from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

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INTRODUCTION

In April 2007, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died at the age of 84. Vonnegut's books, particularly his classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969/1991), appear on scores of "suggested reading" lists for students and line the shelves of school libraries. His short stories also are readily available to students; one of which, "Harrison Bergeron," is published in a well-known literature anthology (Kennedy, 1991). Although availability and accessibility do not necessarily indicate students' actual reading habits, Vonnegut's work has been found to be particularly attractive to young people (Klinkenborg, 2007) and is frequently part of the sanctioned school curriculum. Therefore, scholars and educators benefit by examining the sort of messages, both overt and covert, that youngsters receive through his writings. (1) What is embedded in Vonnegut's (1965/1998) work is a subtle cure for "Samaritrophia," the fictitious disease named in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which manifests itself as a "hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself " (p. 51).

This exploration of the civic lessons that are put forth within this American writer's body of work is timely given the growing number of teachers and educational scholars looking at popular culture as a means for making the curriculum relevant to students. Vonnegut's writings, although some of which were published over a half century ago, are still germane to contemporary youngsters. This article demonstrates this relevance by exploring Vonnegut's civic lessons related to violence and racism.

Popular Culture and Civic Education

The study of popular culture and its value (or lack thereof) for educational purposes have grown exponentially in recent decades. We have, for instance, an emerging literature on the history of popular culture (e.g., Ashby, 2006; Cullen, 2001). Paralleling the historical research, educational scholars also have turned their attention to mass culture, particularly with regard to the impact this culture has on youngsters (e.g., Fisherkeller, 2002; Giroux & Simon, 1989) and its use in classrooms (e.g., Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Ashcraft, 2006; Beyer, 2000; Dyson, 2003). Nadine Dolby (2003) correctly notes that educators "cannot afford to ignore the popular as a site where youth are invested, where things happen, where identities and democratic possibilities are worked out, performed, and negotiated, and where new futures are written" (p. 276).

Moreover, teachers do use popular culture in their classrooms. "As a teacher who tries to make literature relevant to teenagers on a daily basis," Robert Wilder (2007) notes in his recent memoir, Tales from the Teachers' Lounge, "I am forced to make connections between Walden and Survivor or between The Office and Bartleby the Scrivener" (p. 217). American educators also utilize Vonnegut's work as part of their teaching, including requiring the classic Slaughterhouse-Five and the short story "Harrison Bergeron" (Rhoad, 2006). A teacher at Hasting High School in New York allowed a student to conduct an independent project on Mother Night, during which this sophomore read the book and developed a complete back story about one of the characters; Vonnegut read this student's work and called it a "[m]asterpiece" (Sawaoka, 2005; Vonnegut, 2005c). The use of Vonnegut's work is not limited to the secondary level, however. In Hollywood, California, a fifth-grade teacher and his pupils frequently corresponded with the writer about his ideas (Sigler, 2005, 2006). Vonnegut (2005b, 2006) was quite responsive to the use of his work among younger students and even, in earlier years and with the assistance of graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff (1980), created a picture book for primary-level children.

Educators' utilization of Vonnegut's books, stories, plays, and drawings, as Landon Beyer (2000) noted about art in general, "have the capacity to connect what are often considered more distant moral imperatives and the real-life, flesh and blood experiences of young people" (p. …