When religion professor Stuart Charmé decided to teach a course on the end of the world this semester, he knew he had a compelling hook: the Dec. 21 conclusion of the “Long Count” Mayan calendar that doomsday believers have latched on to as proof that time will end.
But Charmé had no idea what the next few months would bring: the cataclysmic Hurricane Sandy, a fiscal cliff some have dubbed “debtmageddon,” and an intensifying conflict involving Israel, the place where Christian end-time theorists believe the apocalypse will commence.
“I didn’t realize this was going to be the most apocalyptic semester that has ever been,” Charmé told students at Rutgers-Camden (N.J.) University this week. “If you look at what’s been going on in the world today as we’re down to 30 days and counting, this has been a really good time. And remember that bad is good for the apocalyptically minded.”
And he’s not the only professor offering “end of the world” courses this semester, theoretically the last semester ever.
At Temple, associate professor Barry Vacker is teaching “Media, Culture, and the End of the World.” Each week, students explore apocalyptic themes, such as nuclear war, zombies, viruses and germs, and global warming.
“We looked at why these ideas proliferate over time,” he said, and how they provide “what if” scenarios to help guide human behavior. If nuclear material falls into the hands of terrorists, for example, a war could start.
This month, students analyzed apocalyptic movies and explored how they measure up against real-world examples.
“I’ve been trying to inform the students on what’s possible, probable, likely, and impossible,” Vacker said.
At Pennsylvania State University’s main campus, Latin American history professor Matthew Restall and his colleague Amara Solari, an art history and anthropology assistant professor, have teamed up on a course, titled simply “The End of the World.”
“We didn’t put ‘2012’ so that we always have the option of teaching the class again,” Restall said, “in case the world doesn’t end.”
Despite the impending doom, students must study, produce projects, and take finals.
At Penn State, the final will be given on apocalypse eve, leaving students no choice but to work “right up to the very night the world is supposed to end,” Restall said.
The courses proved wildly popular.
“It filled in two hours,” Restall said of his honors course, which was capped at 35 students. “We had emails for weeks and weeks into the summer from people asking if there was space.”
Students said the course was among their most interesting.
“I find it fascinating to see what people do to comfort themselves,” said Bridgid Robinson, 23, of Haddonfield, N.J., a religion and sociology major at Rutgers-Camden, “because apocalyptic thinking, secular or religious, is all about comfort, or lack thereof.”
Will Wekesa, 25, a psychology and nursing major from Sayreville, N.J., said he had seen all the apocalyptic movies.
“I never heard of a class that could teach that,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
But not one student interviewed – and certainly none of the professors – said he or she actually believed the Dec. 21 expiration date.
“Our first project was about the Mayan prophecy and so we kind of debunked it,” Temple senior Julie Zeglen, 21, of West Chester, said.
The Mayans never predicted the end of time; it’s just a turning point in the calendar, Restall said.
But there’s an apocalyptic anxiety in Western culture, going back many centuries, in which people react to the changes around them by predicting time will end, he said. The Internet has caused that speculation to boom.
“It isn’t elsewhere that people are latching on to this,” he said. “It’s mostly the English-speaking world.”
Brother Joseph Dougherty, a La Salle University religion professor teaching in the Philippines this year, promptly replied to a question about whether he knew of any “end of the world” courses there.
“The Philippines will not participate in the end of the world,” he wrote, suggesting an exception from higher authority. “We have an indult from the pope.”
Restall noted that over time, there have been hundreds of scheduled doomsdays. In 1260, a friar in Italy cited the Book of Revelation. In 1843, a farmer in Vermont predicted the second coming. Then there was Y2K. And American Christian radio broadcaster Howard Camping predicted a fiery end would begin in May 2011.
And if nothing happens on Dec. 21, “people will immediately begin to move to the next date,” Restall said, or philosophize that Dec. 21 is the beginning of a seven-year period that will bring about the end.
Students and faculty are making lighthearted plans for the fateful day. Several said they were attending “end of the world” parties.
“I’ll probably call some friends and laugh with them,” said Temple junior Samira Ford, 20, a broadcast major from Washington.
Gayle Cutler, who is auditing the Rutgers-Camden class, is booked on a flight to Israel – a ticket she bought before the semester started and she learned the significance of the date.
“If they’re flying and there’s no war, I will be going,” said Cutler, a retired Cherry Hill, N.J., English teacher.
Charmé said that whether people believe is the least important issue.
“What’s more interesting to me is what are the reasons why people take on certain beliefs that may or may not be unusual,” he said.
Every day, there’s fresh material on the Internet, Charmé said.
In class recently, he shared the latest: The “rapture index” had reached its highest level – 186. Billed as “the prophetic speedometer of end-time activity,” the index considers 45 factors, such as moral standards, unemployment, drug abuse, earthquakes, and “liberalism.”
The Israeli conflict tipped up the anti-Semitism metric.
“What 186 really means we don’t really know,” Charmé said, tongue-in-cheek, “other than that it’s way, way, way worse than it’s ever been before.”