The Anarres Project for Alternative Futures takes its inspiration, in part, from the imaginative work of Ursula K. Le Guin. For decades, her speculative fiction has woven together fantastic worlds with reflections on the nature of human life and the meaning of a socially just world. We recently asked two university professors, including our own Anarres Voices contributor Christian Matheis, to reflect on using Ursula Le Guin’s work for teaching about social justice themes.
If you teach social justice using Le Guin’s work, or any other speculative fiction, please share your story with us.
Dr. Lani Roberts, Professor Emerita, Oregon State University:
Teaching from “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”
For a number of years, I taught from Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I also was honored to co-facilitate a discussion with LeGuin on moral self-deception for an Oregon Humanities Program a few years back, based on this same story. Even though I’ve been retired now for more than three years, I still hear from students, on Face Book and in emails, how much they value this particular lesson. What is it about “Omelas” that stays with us? LeGuin insists that it is up to the reader to make of this story, and all of her writing, whatever they will. She refuses any and all requests to spell out her intentions, no matter how the questions are phrased. What I offer here is what sense I make of this story and how I used it to teach important material in undergraduate moral philosophy classes.
First, a quick review of the salient features of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas is a utopian society where (almost) everyone is happy, enjoying sunshine, horseback riding, and a peaceful community. The exception is the one child held in the basement of a building, who has no human touch, who is fed perfunctorily and lives an isolated, lonely existence. Very importantly, all the children of Omelas, I assume around the age of reason, are taken to see this wretched child and it is made quite clear that the very existence of their paradise depends upon the sacrifices of the child in the cellar.
Most people in Omelas, all of whom know the child is in the cellar, continue with their quite happy utopian lives however, each year, a few people walk away from Omelas. Why? This is the crux of the matter. Why would people leave paradise because of the suffering of one or a few? Ms. LeGuin gives us no clue but she is quite clear that there is no guilt in Omelas, stating this fact more than once. In our public discussion of moral self-deception and in letters to LeGuin, readers implore her to say why they walk away and she refuses, often with a chuckle.
And this question is the point of my classroom use of this story. I asked the students, what could possibly explain some people walking away from paradise. Clearly, from the story they were all happy as we can be, and in fact they did not suffer from guilt.
Over the years, in discussions, we concluded that, for the ones who walk away, happiness as pleasure is not the greatest good – or they would not have left paradise. Working through the options, we almost always concluded that for the ones who left paradise, justice is a higher value than personal happiness. I agree with this summation.
Finally, I would ask the students how many of them would walk away from Omelas and always a few, maybe six out of 50, would raise their hands. I would reply that comparatively, we actually do live in Omelas and there are multiple children in our shared cellars and yet we do not walk away, and this includes me. I invited them to submit examples of the child in the cellar in our Omelas, where the benefit of the many depends on the suffering of a few. Common examples submitted included the people who harvest the food we buy at the grocery store, the making of soccer balls by Pakistani children, the children who labor for the minerals used in computers and the like. I much appreciated the students’ ability to take Ms. LeGuin’s “Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and apply the lessons to their own lives.
So, today, in my retirement, when I hear from students about the impact of this story on their learning, I respond by saying it was my honor to teach this and that we are all indebted to LeGuin for this story.
“Tell me the story of Omelas,” the professor said to our introductory undergraduate philosophy course. Hands went up and several students explained their take on the abstract ideas and concepts, such as “fairness,” and “guilt,” and “self-interest.” The professor looked around and said, “No, tell me the story. Tell me about the place. What’s it like? What happens there? Tell me about Omelas.” Slowly, we relinquished our drive to outline an argument and illustrate the premises, and we told the story.
I have, ever since, followed this approach and issue the invitation to tell the story. As I and my peers had done, students leap to discuss meaning while ignoring Le Guin’s intent. “Le Guin wrote a story,” I tell them, “and we’ll take it from there, what does she want us to imagine?” After we spend time telling one another the story, filling in the pieces we remember and listening to someone else tell the ones we forget, we talk about the way Omelas must work, what must happen, for it to provide its denizens a utopia. We must, I insist, try to take as much care in reading the fine details as Le Guin put into crafting them.
When teaching moral and political philosophy, global ethics, and introductory courses of all sorts I emphasize how Omelas provides an allegory for choices dependent on utilitarian morality and a political arrangement in which the suffering of one or a few counts as justifiable so long as it provides for the pleasures of many. We discuss “what counts as most important to those who stay in Omelas?” and students, sometimes begrudgingly or reluctantly, work out how personal pleasure probably counts as the priority – the highest virtue. The most difficult work for students, as it had happened for me, comes in trying to imagine, “what counts as most important to those who walk away from Omelas? What do they want more than pleasure?” This takes great effort. With enough time and patience, they offer a range of ideas that usually include “ethics,” “fairness,” “humanity,” “compassion,” and “justice.” I explain that, as far as I can tell, the ones who walk away probably care more about justice or something like it. Most often, students quickly understand how Omelas illustrates the utilitarianism of contemporary democracies founded on patterned oppression, finances by capitalist cruelties.
For a few years, I taught courses on community organizing that covered social change from anarchist perspectives. As always, I presented the story of Omelas as an allegory about the cruelties of simple utilitarian reasoning, but added questions about where the ones who walk away may go. “What must they imagine if we assume they go somewhere after Omelas, or what do they create wherever they go if they truly walk away?” To understand the story requires the labor of one’s moral imagination as well as one’s political imagination – how ought we treat one another, and what does a just society provide? But, considering the anarchist interests in mutual aid and human solidarity, I have found that it can also provoke a liberatory imagination – what would it take to put communities and societies, our cultures and institutions, in the service of ending suffering and restoring the dignity of the brutalized? What would we organize if we cared about liberation as much as normative ethical treatment and rational political justice, all three as mutually reinforcing? “I admit,” I tell students, “I have no conclusive answers but I do hope you’ll keep working on the questions Omelas raises.”
I do think the story helps students understand the imbalance of pleasure and justice. I also think the story helps students, if invited, to feel a liberatory impulse to want something emancipatory that can end the suffering of the child. I think it matters to consider that just as carefully as we ponder the critique of simple pleasures and utilitarian calculus.
Over time, I have changed the emphases I place on different parts of the story. Every now and then I re-read it to help myself remember something I forgot or to notice something I worry I might have overlooked. Most people I know who’ve read the story do not seem to know that Omelas kicks off the entire Hainish Cycle, a collection of short stories and novels that span something like 15,000 years in some loosely ecumenical universe. Someday I hope to teach a course that involves reading the entire collection. One day years ago, and many years after I had first read the story of Omelas at age nineteen, I picked up my copy of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters — the anthology in which Omelas appears second-to-the-last among the other short stories. On a whim I turned to the final story in the collection, “The Day Before the Revolution,” and found Le Guin’s author’s preface. In the few short sentences she placed before the story I found that her own liberatory imagination had refused to rest: “This story is about one of the ones who walked away from Omelas.”
Ursula K. Le Guin and Lani Roberts in 2009. Photo: ursulakleguin.com.