A College Education Capped Off With an End-of-Reality Check

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

The last guitar licks faded out, the screen went blank and students sat quietly in the dark classroom. Senior Tallie Jamison walked to the front to give her final presentation. "So," she said. "Here we are at the end."

It was the last class of the apocalypse, and everyone was hoping it would finish with a bang.

When Professor Eduardo Velasquez offered a politics course on the apocalypse this year for the first time, he didn't expect to have to turn away more than four-fifths of the Washington and Lee University students who wanted to take it. But the idea of the apocalypse has taken hold in strange ways in this post-millennial, post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 world.

He sees worry about the future saturating popular culture -- in song lyrics, a crop of apocalyptic movies, video games, the NBC show "Revelations" this spring and such bestselling books as the "Left Behind" series and its spinoffs, which have sold more than 63 million copies.

Advances in science and technology are changing life and death, changing the environment and making it difficult to see what is ahead, Velasquez said. "I can't tell you about floating up someplace, or a rapture, but it does seem to me that we are at the end of something, that we are a civilization that has exhausted itself."

Pretty heavy stuff for the last week of school, when most seniors are more interested in sitting on fraternity porches in the sun with a beer or floating on rafts down the Maury River. But then again, as students hurtle toward the abyss -- graduation, moving, jobs -- what better time for a class that asks what's next?

"We're not talking about the world blowing up," said Michael Lee, 22, who will graduate from the small Lexington college Thursday. The literal meaning of apocalypse, they learned, is to uncover, or disclose. "We're talking about apocalypse in terms of a revelation for humankind . . . something that will shape the world in the next century."

As with many seniors, it's the only class he is taking in the last weeks of school; all Washington and Lee students end the year with a six-week term that's more intensive, and often more creative, than traditional classes. As he finishes 17 years of learning to launch into a new life, Lee said, "I can't think of a better course to finish off with."

He knows his immediate future: a job as a health care lobbyist in Washington. "After that, it's a great unknown."

In their last class, on the big screen at the front of the room, the students watched a very small and agitated chicken that was wearing glasses. "He saw the signs," the movie trailer voice-over intoned. "He tried to warn us."

The background music for a promo for the new Disney movie "Chicken Little" filled the room: the R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

They laughed, thinking about how it fit in with the philosophy. Each student has talked about apocalyptic music in class, passing out lyrics, showing videos, blasting Modest Mouse or Led Zeppelin or Tupac.

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