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A College Education Capped Off With an End-of-Reality Check
Popular Washington and Lee Class Examines Apocalypse

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.

Velasquez started using popular culture in his classes after several years of trying to get students excited about political philosophy texts by such writers as Locke and Hobbes and Plato, to no avail. Frustrated, he decided he could meet them halfway. Besides, he figured, pop culture isn't going away. "This is the atmosphere," he said. "This is what we breathe."

Some of his colleagues have criticized the approach as dumbing down the curriculum. But he hopes he is reaching students more directly, weaving the classic philosophers in, and teaching them to think more critically. In class the other day, he cautioned students against reading too much into songs, but he thinks people in general are much more prone to under-think than to over-think.

Most of the classes are discussions, not lectures. There are long silences while students think about what has been said or struggle to answer a question. Along the way, he has created a closeness that fosters both risks and revelations.

Some of the idea for the class came from students, who often give him music or DVDs. He was surprised that the same themes kept coming up, especially the sense of uncertainty about the future.

Velasquez thought that he might write a book called "A New Genesis" -- until it hit him that he has no idea what is ahead.

Now his working title is "A Student's Guide to the Apocalypse."

So for the past six weeks, his students have been thinking about the end of the world as we know it. Senior Jackson Mabry did his project on Johnny Cash, someone he had never thought of as apocalyptic until he listened more closely to the song about Folsom prison. "That's the end of the world," Mabry said. "All this hellfire and brimstone raining down on you. The only hope is in something unseen, and in the song he hears the whistle of the train, and he's able to conjure up images of hope and the good life."

For his final project, Lee is exploring the idea of self, and whether advances in scientific knowledge will wipe out the understanding of the soul. He's creating a Web site that mixes Tom Wolfe's college-life novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons" with neuroscience and Nietzsche. In their last class, they watched R.E.M. sing through a newscast of natural disasters, talked about how every earthquake and flood and car bomb is now broadcast instantaneously to everyone, how that can bring a sense of constant calamity and threat -- and how the band has said that change is essential.

Jamison stood up for her presentation:

"The end of the world for me," she said, "is graduation. That's what it is for most of us. It's really scary. It's coming. The clock is ticking. But we don't really know what comes after that."

She took a deep breath, then began her own revelations. She read from her sophomore-year journal to show how she had changed, showed the numbers she used to tabulate every time she ate, counting calories to measure her self-worth.

When she paused, after describing a car wreck, exhaustion from exams, fear, loneliness, self-destruction, the class was silent. Minutes went by.

She turned off the lights and turned up the music, letting Coldplay's "Everything's Not Lost" ripple through the darkness.

"That was my own apocalypse," she said.

When Velasquez stood up and turned on the lights, everyone was still quiet.

He said a few halting words, pausing to sip a bottle of water. He was thinking about what she was leaving behind, and what she had ahead. And what they all have ahead. He's going away, too, moving his family to Denmark for a year to teach there. Change is good, he said. It's hard, but it's good. He looked at his class again, students who had taken course after course from him, and then walked over to the classroom door and opened it, and smiled at them.

"Leave," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company