When I finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, I sat up on our futon and turned to Nathan, who was reading on the opposite couch.
“So, if there were a Georgian Flu pandemic that wiped out 90% of the population, and we had to become vagabonds because local infrastructure crumbled, I think we’d survive for a while. We have all that backpacking gear so we could sleep on the road, and that atlas in the car, and some hand tools. We’d want to go West toward Michigan, because it’s climate resilient with diverse agricultural output, and there’s a lot of fresh water. But we’d really need to brush up on botany so that we could forage for seasonal food. And archery. It seems like that would be a valuable skill for hunting and self-defense.”
He didn’t say anything for a long moment.
“What are you talking about?”
I shared this anecdote in my Contemporary American Fiction class the first session after the election. I wanted to add some levity to a somber conversation about the threat Trump’s presidency poses to women, Muslims, immigrants, the queer community, and people of color. “What are we doing here?” my classmates asked. “What’s the use of studying literature right now?”
Nathan’s confusion caused me to clarify my (similar) concerns.
“Katie. You do not need to take up botany in order to survive an apocalypse you can’t possibly anticipate.”
“But what if–“
“No archery either.”
On several of my commutes the following week, I thought about the limited survival value of most of my current skills. I’ve been trained and educated for an internet economy, which depends on infrastructures like electricity and international shipping for hardware and the sort of political and environmental stability that allows people to care about literature and a liberal arts education. I can’t feed myself without access to a grocery store. I can’t build shelter or fix machinery. My ability to write a lesson plan or craft an essay will be of no use after the Georgian flu.
But Nathan was right. I can’t plan for the apocalypse. I can only do what I believe to be useful and good now. I can only do what is in front of me.
And I do, firmly, believe that teaching my students to listen to new ideas, read carefully, evaluate credibility, consider counterarguments, support their claims with evidence, accept criticism, and offer constructive feedback is useful and good. And I believe that interpreting texts, exploring ideas, tracing cultural shifts, and connecting art to our everyday life is useful and good. And I suppose, that even if the world is ending, even if my faith in institutions and human goodness and the moral arc of the universe is profoundly shaken, I could do worse than useful and good. Even if the pandemic breaks out tomorrow, I am glad I am doing this work.
That work– considering stories– that has made me braver and more generous and more thoughtful and more hopeful. That work has given me visions of the future that I can believe in, and others I can prepare for. Emily St. John Mandel imagines an apocalypse, but there’s still a traveling Shakespeare troupe after the pandemic. Perhaps along with my study of edible plants, I ought to memorize more poetry. There may be a future in that.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.