Discovery Group Discusses Utopia

Discovery Group, the student-led project at Serbu Youth Facility spent three meetings in a row pondering the philosophy of society and happiness through the story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin. The short story details the Utopian city of Omelas, a beautiful town situated next to a shimmering sea and overlooking glorious mountains. The story begins with the city’s Summer Festival, where children are playing barefoot in grass, flowers are blooming and joyful music fills the sweet air. Omelas is described as an absolutely perfect civilization. It has no kings, soldiers, priests or slaves. It is an idyllic and magical place.

However, once the children of Omelas reach a certain age, they learn the truth about their Utopian society. The city’s constant state of serenity and happiness is completely dependent on the misery of one child. This child is kept alone in a filthy and dark basement, hidden away from the rest of society. This one child suffers so the rest of the community can be happy. The perfection of Omelas depends on this social contract. It is understood that if this child were to be freed, the Utopian city of Omelas would be destroyed. Most citizens of Omelas feel terrible for this child, but they accept that their own happiness is completely contingent on the child’s misery and so they are complacent in the child’s torture. However, when some people learn of this arrangement, they decide to walk away from Omelas.

“The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial” (Le Guin, 3).

Artistic rendering of utopia by a Discovery Group participant.

Artistic rendering of utopia by a Discovery Group participant.

Discovery Group had a wonderful 3 lessons based on the story of Omelas and the concept of Utopias. We began by discussing if we, as hypothetical citizens of Omelas, would decide to stay in the “perfect” city or if we would walk away. There was interesting discussion surrounding the idea of true happiness and if the citizens of Omelas were actually happy or, if in this situation, ignorance is bliss. Many students brought up that we, as a society, often ignore injustices for the greater good of individual lives. Students discussed the reality of child abuse in our society, and that often, other people do not intervene because it does not directly benefit their own life.

Later that week, Discovery Group worked together to create a Utopia of our own. At first, we came up with fun (and perhaps, unrealistic) ideas such as pizza raining from the sky, teleportation and trampoline floors. Then, we decided to discuss how we could create a more realistic utopia.  We talked about what a government might look like, if money was necessary and how we would ensure that everyone who was benefiting from our utopia was also contributing.

Note from a facilitator: This story is college level reading. The vocabulary and writing style is definitely difficult to understand. In the first few pages of reading out loud, most students noted that they didn’t understand what was going on. We worked through this by summarizing the story multiple times throughout reading out loud and answering any questions they had. Eventually, I could tell they were starting to get it. It was really wonderful to see them start to understand the story and be able to have a sophisticated and intelligent conversation after they were so tentative in the beginning.