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.'” (pp. 81-83)

And here we sit in the second decade of the twenty-first century, with a 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.

Recommended Reading for Educators Trapped in the Machine

from World War Z, Max Brooks

“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 just following orders.'” (p. 83)

from Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

“[I]t is nothing short of disastrous that more than ever before, one antidemocratic system of ideas—market ideology—almost exclusively defines the terms of educational politics and charts the path of education reform

“…[I]deology is important in understanding educational change….Ideology is nonetheless often overlooked or at best misapplied by mainstream social scientists as a factor in politics. This is due in part to the dominance of quantitative methodologies in political science, which leads to the trivialization of the concept into conveniently measurable but irrelevant labels….Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage.” (pp. 3, 8-9)

from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

“For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

“The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened.” (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)