Oblivion and How to Avoid It

About a year ago, Universal Pictures released the movie “Oblivion,” starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. I saw it on television last night.

It was about a man and a woman (Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) on a space station orbiting a post-apocalyptic earth who are charged with the maintenance of drones which protect a number of orbiting installations which are mining precious resources from the earth, primarily water, for the human encampment now situated on one of Jupiter’s moons.

The Moon has been blown up, desolating the Earth, which is now almost unlivable. Cruise plays “Jack,” who, along with Victoria, his companion, tries to keep the defensive drones operational in the face of constant attacks from roving bands of alien invaders called “scavs” (short for “scavengers”).

Jack and Victoria have both had a memory wipe as a security precaution.

But one day Jack is captured by the scavs. He is knocked out in the struggle and wakes up tied to a chair under an intense light on what appears to be a stage. A voice comes from the darkness:

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

We hear a match lit, and we see the face of a man, the light of the match reflected off of his goggles. “We’ve been watching you, Jack,” he says.

Far from being aliens, the scavs are really human beings. Led by Beech (played by Freeman), they have been watching Jack and have decided not to kill him because they think there is something different about him. They tell him the real story of what has happened to the earth and allow him to leave their encampment, to find out for himself, risking the safety of their encampment in doing so.

As the story progresses we, along with Jack, find out that he is just one of many Jack’s patrolling various parts of the earth, all seemingly identical clones unaware of the others. More importantly, he finds out he is fighting for the wrong side.

Earth was taken over by aliens who are bleeding the earth dry of its resources. There is no human encampment elsewhere in the solar system. The only humans left are the scavs, who are huddled in caves in the earth, protecting what is left of humanity.

But Beech senses that there is something about this Jack that is different from his copies.

In one of his missions, Jack has discovered an old library. As the scavs watch him from the darkness, they see him salvage several books (in apparent violation of policy). One of them is Horatius at the Bridge, by Lord Macaulay. In one scene we see Jack on the space station, huddled in a corner, secretly reading it and trying to commit it to his formerly empty memory.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late”

There are other classic books he has found too. And in reading them, he is transformed from a memoryless copy of himself, unquestioningly following the orders of what he now knows to be the very creatures who have destroyed his civilization, to a fully human being. A human being who has, by having recovered his cultural memory, been humanized.

A man who was the servant of machines has become a master of his own soul. In the end, the now fully humanized Jack sacrifices himself in defense of the scavs, uttering Macauley’s lines as he does so: “And how can man die better …”

We are now in the process of producing a whole race of Jacks. We no longer pass on our history and culture to our children. If you doubt the truth of this charge, go look at the recent federal social studies standards which include no historical content whatsoever.

We have been taken over by cultural aliens.

We are well on our way to accomplishing a massive memory wipe. We are quickly accomplishing what the writer George Steiner has called “planned amnesia.” We are producing memoryless copies of ourselves.

Lost in the mindless devotion to so-called “critical thinking skills” and “college and career readiness”–not to mention our servitude to machines–are the ancient stories and venerable truths that schools once taught as a matter of course–ideas and and values that made us human, not just just cogs in an economic machine.

Classical education differs from the kind of education that has slowly taken over most of our schools. Its purpose is not to teach job skills or to reform society, although without aiming at these goals it achieves them better than these other methods do.

Classical education is about passing on our culture. If we don’t do it, we risk a world as culturally desolate as the physical world Jack sacrifices himself to save.


This article will be featured in a future edition of The Classical Teacher, published by Memoria Press. Published with permission of the author.

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