Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse

At the intersection of horror and science fiction (SF) lies a haunting lesson in the allegory rising from narratives such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): By the time the apocalypse happens, it won’t look like we expect, and political and public recognition of the event will come way too late.

As a life-long SF fan and educator for three decades, then, I have found that Max Brooks, in his World War Z, has inadvertently written a series of lessons for the education reform apocalypse that is already happening, and almost no one is willing to admit it.

I think we must not ignore that the zombie genre is a mythology about the brain: The infection attacks the brain and the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain. For an educator, these are not trivial matters.

Brooks crafts an oral history that looks back on the human race barely surviving a zombie apocalypse. As the snippets of interviews reveal, the political and military elites around the world failed to act with clarity and often hid the rising zombie plague from the public in calculated and horrifying ways: Decisions were made, for example, about who should survive and who was expendable.

In one section we learn that to identify infected zombies, air planes killed hundreds of people so that the infected could rise from the carnage and be easily identified.

Another response to the zombie outbreak involves the government and Big Pharma. Initially, the zombie infection is identified as rabies so a rabies vaccine is mass-produced, primarily to allay fear although the government and pharmaceutical companies knew the vaccine to be ineffective. Money was to be made and the ends justified the means.

But one of the most powerful lessons to me is in the Great Panic section, an interview with Maria Zhuganova. This oral history focuses on the actions of the military in conjunction with civilian oversite, a man call “Rat Face.”

In Zhuganova’s explanation, we discover that the soldiers are forced to enact decimation, as she explains:

“To ‘decimate’…I used to think it meant just to wipe out, cause horrible damage, destroy…it actually means to kill by a percentage of ten, one out of every ten must die…and that’s exactly what they did to us….

“We would be the ones to decide who would be punished. Broken up into groups of ten, we would have to vote on which one of us was going to be executed. And then we…the soldiers, we would be the ones to personally murder our friends….

“Brilliance….Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn’t. We went right along with it….We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say ‘They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.’ The freedom, God help us, to say ‘I was only following orders.’” (p. 81-83)

And here we sit in 2013, awaiting the film version of World War Z and pretending that a horror/SF tale has no value beyond our entertainment.

While our government conspires with Big Testing to implement scorched-earth policies with our children because the public is afraid of our international competitiveness and does not question the effectiveness of testing, despite the evidence to the contrary.

And like the soldiers, teachers are compelled to be accomplices in Common Core State Standards implementation and preparing our students for the tests to follow.

The decimation of public education has infected us all.

The only real antidote, unlike the zombie apocalypse, is that educators, students, and parents must all choose not to follow orders, not to become the accomplices that allow the decimation.