Floods and Famines

The march of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast reminded me of how difficult it is to get students to connect recent events with abstract concepts, especially when students lack direct experience. In students’ thinking, fate explains all. Floods, famines, and wars “just happen.” Somalia is desperately poor and violent because it’s Somalia. Students will donate money or time to a charity because they think it’s a good thing to do, but they don’t examine the role of economic or political institutions (or the lack thereof) in creating human suffering. So for lack of a better term, here is what I call the Hurricane Game:

Tell students to write down, in the form of a list, everything that they do in a typical day. Then say that a hurricane has blown through the night before while they were asleep. Select a student to begin reciting his or her list. The first item will probably be something like “wake up.” Ask the student “do you usually wake up because of an alarm clock?” If the answer is yes, respond with “there’s no electricity, you’re alarm clock didn’t ring, you’re awake, but you don’t know what time it is. What do you do next?” Go through a few more items in the student’s list in a similar fashion — you can remove heat, piped water, refrigerated food, and electronic financial transactions as needed. Students will rapidly find themselves at a loss for what to do, and at point they can form small groups to strategize if they wish. You may even wish to inject a highly contagious disease or zombies into the equation.

Getting students to realize how much of their lives are on autopilot can lead to discussions of everything from social contract theory to markets to public administration. For example, why are there emergency exits and who mandates them? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Why do some people know how to grow food but others don’t? Why do we assume food we haven’t grown ourselves is safe to eat? Why does that food go from a farm to our kitchen table? What happens if someone tries to take that food and there is no enforceable body of law prohibiting theft?

A good book that gives a real-world example of some of these questions is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

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