Imagine a world in which a book, any book, falling into the wrong hands could result in death or banishment. A world in which education is so highly regarded for its power, that it's systematically used to oppress an entire people. This is the world in which Elisabeth Moss' Offred exists in Hulu's new series, The Handmaid's Tale, but it reeks of past methods of oppression by those in power and it serves as a severe warning for the future.
For all the talk about America being made great again, it sure has a long way to go when it comes to education. As reported by Pew Research, 15 year-olds in the United States placed 38 out of 71 countries in math and 24 in science, and for eighth graders, seven out of 37 countries had higher average math and science scores than United States students. The truth is that American education is in trouble because education is treated as something to fear rather than something to embrace. This is further exemplified in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a dystopian world (a little too close to home, if you ask me) in which science is eschewed and the Bible is the law of the land.
In with the election of a new President came a new education secretary — Betsy DeVos, a woman who strives to privatize public education. I’m all for new and revolutionary ways to do things, but when DeVos was the chair of pro-school-choice group American Federation For Children, according to the Washington Post, DeVos worked “to create programs and pass laws that require the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition in the form of vouchers and similar programs.” She loves charter schools, but the only problem with the charter schools that DeVos championed in Michigan was that their academic test scores were below the state average. DeVos is basically a lobbyist who has no real education experience, and she’s in charge of the American education system right now. Yes, you can be scared now.
The Handmaid’s Tale shows what could be expected if the American education system falls further in privatization and theocratic (another of DeVos’ favorite things) speak. Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale will follow. In Gilead, the fictional country that used to be the United States, the Bible is the word of the law and the word of, well, everything. Academics and scientists are murdered, left hanging from great walls as an example of what happens when humans abandon God. The only people who are allowed to be educated, if we can call it that, are the upper classes — Handmaid Offred and her handmaid brethren will be killed if they have so much as a book near them. That’s why when Offred is offered a game of Scrabble by Commander Waterford, she is shocked. He, too, aches to use his brain again, but the difference is that he is allowed to have that ache. The hand won’t fall on him like it will on her if they get caught playing a cerebral board game.
In Gilead and in the real world, knowledge is power. Knowledge is freedom. Knowledge means knowing that you have options. These are the things theocratic or totalitarian leaders don’t want their subjects to know. In an age where lies are spouted as “alternative facts” and everything the news media rights is declared as “fake news” (and don’t get me started on those who deny climate change in favor of big bucks from coal lobbyists), The Handmaid’s Tale is spelling out, much like Offred spelled in her forbidden Scrabble tiles, what can happen when real knowledge and real literacy are stamped out.
Yes, in our real world, education and literacy are indeed luxuries — there are many people who don’t have the time to learn, to read, to ingest knowledge, because they have people to care for and jobs that take precedence. Public schools are overcrowded and underfunded. And what alternative do we have?Well, there is the small matter of critical thinking — something the Hulu series shows to be a very dangerous act in this new dystopian world (while some of the oppressed strive for information, there are Gilead-allegiant spies everywhere waiting to catch them). By asking questions about “why” and “how," the public could theoretically bring down an entire nation, but those questions need to be asked before it's too late. As Offred says in the series, no one was awake before everything happened, but their eyes are wide as hell now.
Education is resistance. Literacy is a means of questioning why and how and when. While my brain won’t allow me to think that The Handmaid’s Tale is prescient of what would and could happen to American society should this seeming disdain for education be allowed to proliferate (I can’t go there, for my own sanity), it’s an amazing reminder that while literacy and education are looked at as luxuries, they're actually necessities. Knowledge is the way out, the way to freedom, and something that should be treasured above all else. Without it, we have no hope of staying awake.