Class Close-Up: Modern Evil

Teacher: English professor Simon Gikandi

Focus: The class is exploring questions pertaining to evil in the contemporary world, as represented in literature and film. Students study events in the 20th and 21st centuries — including the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and consider themes like the relationship between perpetrators and victims, personal responsibility and the suffering of others, and reconciliation and community rebuilding.

Background: Gikandi created the course to address students’ questions following the Sept. 11 attacks. “The public discourse was asking the question of ‘Why did this happen to us?’” he said. “There are different types of evil, and once we remove theology from it, they become very complicated because things just don’t happen by accident. How do we explain these terrible things that happen to us? So I wanted to select events and books that talk about those things.”

On the reading list: Reading selections include We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid ’93, and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi; films include The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer and Forgiveness by Ian Gabriel.

Key takeaway: “Responsibility, because that’s the most important thing — are we responsible for others? Whenever things like mass killings, genocide, or war happen, we have to confront the question of ‘what is our responsibility to other people when they are suffering?’”