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Teaching Guide

Teaching Utopia

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Dystopias are all the rage, but sometimes the "good" twin is the one you really have to watch out for. And Thomas More's Utopia is definitely a good twin.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity exploring the possibility of an online utopia.
  • historical context on the origin of the dystopia, parody, and that other cynical philosopher, Machiavelli.
  • discussion questions on ethics and religion. You know, the easy stuff.

In case Utopia really is out to get you, we've got your back.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Modern life is perhaps nowhere more, well, modern than in how we weave and plait electricity into all we do. GPS, cell phones, apps for all things, the Internet, Facebook, texting… technology is everywhere. And there's plenty of debate over whether all this technology is good or ruining our society (as in, remember the good old days when kids played outside and phones were for making phone calls?). So, would a contemporary Utopia be an unplugged world where folks enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, or would it be a technological mecca with a gadget solution to every conceivable problem? How would Utopians living in the 21st century respond to our electronic habits?

In this lesson, students will analyze the Utopians' use of technology in their society, and then apply that analysis to our modern technology. Ultimately, students will work in groups to write technological amendments to the Utopian constitution. This lesson should take two-three class periods.

Materials Needed: 

  • Computer and projector for presentations
  • Copies of the novel

Step 1: So, this book was written in the 1500s—the dark ages by our technological standards. But of course, there was technology even back then; it was just, you know, primitive. If we're going to try and figure out how Utopians would respond to our technology today, let's start by examining their use of technology back then. Check out these relevant passages with your class and ask students to point out clues that might reveal how the Utopians feel about technology.

  • Technology as Innovation: Near the very end of Book 1, we're told some Egyptians and Romans were shipwrecked on Utopia a long time ago, and the Utopians were so clever "that from this single opportunity they drew the advantage of learning from those unlooked-for guests, and acquired all the useful arts that were then among the Romans, and which were known to these shipwrecked men; and by the hints that they gave them they themselves found out even some of those arts which they could not fully explain, so happily did they improve that accident of having some of our people cast upon their shore."
  • Practical and Useful Technology: "They breed an infinite multitude of chickens in a very curious manner; for the hens do not sit and hatch them, but a vast number of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat in order to be hatched, and they are no sooner out of the shell, and able to stir about, but they seem to consider those that feed them as their mothers, and follow them as other chickens do the hen that hatched them." (First section of Book 2)
  • Technology and War: "They are very good at finding out warlike machines, and disguise them so well that the enemy does not perceive them till he feels the use of them; so that he cannot prepare such a defense as would render them useless; the chief consideration had in the making them is that they may be easily carried and managed." (Of Their Military Discipline)

Step 2: With clues from these passages in hand, charge directly ahead into a class discussion using these questions:

  • Do the Utopians seem to value learning new and easier ways of doing things, or do they value keeping their practices the same? How do you know?
  • Do you think Utopians fear change or welcome it? Support your answer with clues from the text.
  • Based on your reading of Utopia, how do you think such a culture would judge our use of technology? 
  • What things would they consider useful? Why?
  • Would they find any of our technology frivolous? Why?
  • What are the benefits of technology? Be specific here and think about benefits to society as a whole, not just to you personally.
  • We know it's hard to imagine life without your handheld computer in your pocket at all times, but what are some possible benefits of a world without technology or with more limited technology?
  • How much of our daily use of technology is, at least in part, serving as status symbol? How would the Utopians feel about this? 
  • Do we need technology or merely want it? Which elements of technology would you consider true necessities?
  • Think about how the Utopians treat precious metals and jewels. Can technology become a corruptive force? How?
  • In your opinion, what would technology be like in an "ideal" world?
  • Now put on your Utopian hat. What rules or customs would govern the Utopians' use of technology?

Step 3: Okay Utopians, it's time to write a constitutional amendment (or maybe several amendments) concerning technology. Divide your class into groups (that's totally how we wrote the Bill of Rights, right?), and give students the following prompt:

• What modern technological conveniences would 21st century Utopians adopt or reject? What rules or guidelines would their constitution include about the use of technology in their society? Provide reasons and text evidence from the novel for all of your choices.

Require each group to list a minimum of six distinct pieces of technology (iPods, cars, airplanes, cell phones, etc.) or uses of technology (like computers in the classroom or Kindles for reading). The group must then decide if the Utopians would adopt the technology, ban it, or adopt it with special rules. Students should be very specific about any rules or customs Utopians would put in place for each type of technology. For each choice they make, students should be able to select at least one piece of text evidence from Utopia to support their opinion.

Step 4: Time for a good, old-fashioned constitutional convention. Tell students that they are one of several teams the Utopian government has selected to make recommendations for the use of technology. Each group will create a PowerPoint presentation of their suggested amendments to the constitution along with their reasoning and evidence from the novel.

The groups will present their recommendations to the class (Utopian government officials), and the class will discuss the recommendations and ultimately vote on the final amendments to the Utopian constitution. Hint: This is a great place to sneak in some persuasive writing strategies (it's like hiding broccoli in their cell phones) as students try to convince the other groups to vote for their recommendations. Be sure to encourage students to challenge and critique one another's opinions and evidence.

Instructions for Your Students

How many hours a day do you spend on social media? Or using your smartphone? Can you even remember when cell phones weren't "smart?" With apps for just about everything, technology in our modern world is everywhere. And there's plenty of debate over whether all this technology is good or ruining our society (as in, remember the good old days when you kids played outside and phones were for making phone calls?). So, would a contemporary Utopia be an unplugged world where folks enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, or would it be a technological mecca with a gadget solution to every conceivable problem? How would Utopians living in the 21st century respond to our electronic habits?

Step 1: So, this book was written in the 1500s—the dark ages by our technological standards. But of course, there was technology even back then; it was just, you know, primitive. If we're going to try and figure out how Utopians would respond to our technology today, let's start by examining their use of technology back then. Check out these passages and highlight any clues that might reveal how the Utopians feel about technology.

  • Technology as Innovation: Near the very end of Book 1, we're told some Egyptians and Romans were shipwrecked on Utopia a long time ago, and the Utopians were so clever "that from this single opportunity they drew the advantage of learning from those unlooked-for guests, and acquired all the useful arts that were then among the Romans, and which were known to these shipwrecked men; and by the hints that they gave them they themselves found out even some of those arts which they could not fully explain, so happily did they improve that accident of having some of our people cast upon their shore."
  • Practical and Useful Technology: "They breed an infinite multitude of chickens in a very curious manner; for the hens do not sit and hatch them, but a vast number of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat in order to be hatched, and they are no sooner out of the shell, and able to stir about, but they seem to consider those that feed them as their mothers, and follow them as other chickens do the hen that hatched them." (First section of Book 2)
  • Technology and War: "They are very good at finding out warlike machines, and disguise them so well that the enemy does not perceive them till he feels the use of them; so that he cannot prepare such a defense as would render them useless; the chief consideration had in the making them is that they may be easily carried and managed." (Of Their Military Discipline)

Step 2: Got your clues? Wield them like weapons of text evidence to help you answer these questions:

  • Do the Utopians seem to value learning new and easier ways of doing things, or do they value keeping their practices the same? How do you know?
  • Do you think Utopians fear change or welcome it? Support your answer with clues from the text.
  • Based on your reading of Utopia, how do you think such a culture would judge our use of technology? 
  • What things would they consider useful? Why?
  • Would they find any of our technology frivolous? Why?
  • What are the benefits of technology? Be specific here and think about benefits to society as a whole, not just to you personally.
  • We know it's hard to imagine life without your handheld computer in your pocket at all times, but what are some possible benefits of a world without technology or with more limited technology?
  • How much of our daily use of technology is, at least in part, serving as status symbol? How would the Utopians feel about this? 
  • Do we need technology or merely want it? Which elements of technology would you consider true necessities?
  • Think about how the Utopians treat precious metals and jewels. Can technology become a corruptive force? How?
  • In your opinion, what would technology be like in an "ideal" world?
  • Now put on your Utopian hat. What rules or customs would govern the Utopians' use of technology?

Step 3: Okay Utopians, it's time to write a constitutional amendment (or maybe several amendments) concerning technology. You'll work in groups (that's totally how we wrote the Bill of Rights, right?) to respond to the following prompt:

  • What modern technological conveniences would 21st century Utopians adopt or reject? What rules or guidelines would their constitution include about the use of technology in their society? Provide reasons and text evidence from the novel for all of your choices.

That's a pretty loaded question, huh? Break it down now y'all:

  • Make a list of at least six specific pieces of common, modern technology (iPhone, GPS, cars, airplanes, etc.). 
  • You can also choose uses of technology (like technology in the classroom, library, or hospital).
  • Decide if the Utopians would use or ban each item of technology on your list. 
  • If the Utopians would use the technology, would there be any limitations, special rules, or customs, or would they have free and unlimited use just like us?
  • For each of your six examples, explain why the Utopians would use or ban it. 
  • For each explanation, provide at least one piece of text evidence from the novel to back up your thinking.

BAD, VERY BAD Examples:

  • I don't think Utopians would have airplanes because they are totally old school about, like, everything
  • I think Utopians would go crazy for airplanes. They're so useful, you know what I mean?

GOOD Examples:

  • Utopians would play videogames, but only those that could be used to cultivate their minds or teach good values. These games would be for two players at least, to encourage interaction between fellow Utopians. 
    • Evidence: After supper they spend an hour in some diversion, in summer in their gardens, and in winter in the halls where they eat, where they entertain each other either with music or discourse. They do not so much as know dice, or any such foolish and mischievous games. They have, however, two sorts of games not unlike our chess; the one is between several numbers, in which one number, as it were, consumes another; the other resembles a battle between the virtues and the vices… (Book 2, 'Of their Trades and Manner of Life')
  • Utopians would not play videogames, because they have only a few games of their own they play. These are enough for what they are supposed to do. 
    • Evidence: Utopians do not like 'foolish and mischievous' games. There is a tradition of playing only a few games that reinforce Utopian values. For example, the number game develops intellect and the virtue and vices game teaches good character.

Step 4: Time for a good, old-fashioned constitutional convention. You are attending this convention as one of several teams the Utopian government has selected to make recommendations for the use of technology. Each team will create a PowerPoint presentation of your suggested amendments to the constitution along with your reasoning and evidence from the novel.

You will present your recommendations to the Utopian government officials (your classmates), and the officials will discuss the recommendations and ultimately vote on the final amendments to the Utopian constitution. Hint: You should be using your persuasive writing skills as you develop and present your PowerPoint. Remember, your goal is to convince the members of the convention to vote for your recommendations, so you'll need strong reasoning and solid evidence. As the other groups present, don't be afraid to challenge and critique one another's opinions and evidence. After all, your cell phone usage as Utopian citizens is at stake!

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