K–12: The World According to Orwell's 1984
Most critics agree that George Orwell's 1984 is a supremely great novel. But is it suitable for teenagers? After all, this book is a grim portrayal of a totalitarian dystopia, and for many readers, it is a traumatic experience.
Several years ago, I argued that 1984 is too deep, dark, and unpleasant for high school students. Let's protect them. Now the political atmosphere has shifted wildly. High school students praise socialism and even communism as if they know all about them. These kids don't need to be protected; they need to be educated.
I believe that Orwell wrote his beautiful but terrifying book as a gift to the world. Look what happens, he warns us, if you don't recognize danger. The demagogues promising Heaven on Earth? They are the ones most likely to put you in a concentration camp or a mass grave.
The presidential debates for 2020 have been historically memorable because so many Democrats came out of the political closet. They casually confirmed: Sure, I'm a socialist, aren't we all? Our Education Establishment, safe to say, has been busy for decades enabling these changes and now seems eager to build on them.
Our students don't need more propaganda. They need to learn hard, painful truths about ideologues who promise perfect societies. What is the flaw that lets socialist or communist countries descend so fast and furiously into barbarism? Stalin is routinely credited with killing 20 million of his own people. Mao's total is closer to 40 million. What is this curse?
Conversely, what protects the USA from those murderous fates?
The Founding Fathers were obsessed with dictatorial tendencies observed throughout history and how best to keep them in check. The simplest defense is to distribute power in many places, and that's the genius of the American Constitution.
Socialist and communist governments always seek to centralize power. Leaders claim they need power, and still more power, to push through their wonderful visions. Mao talked like that. Castro talked like that. It's always the same pitch: if you want Heaven on Earth, let us do anything we want.
Students in American public schools learn little history. So they won't see any reason to disagree with authoritarian overreach. Sure, why not try something new and different? That should be fun and entertaining.
Because so much content has been eliminated from American classrooms, children grow up to be intellectual lightweights ready to take a chance with whatever Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spout.
The fatal flaw in all collectivist schemes is that to be safe, you need angels in charge. But we're much more likely to get power-crazy sociopaths. The Democrat debates showed this very strongly. Many of them seemed ready to smash a lot of eggs on the off-chance they could make a few omelets.
Beto O'Rourke set the tone: "Hell Yes, We Are Going to Take Your AR-15."
Most of the Democrat candidates stress the same drastic dreams. They hope they have a pretext to grab guns. Abolish borders so anybody can come in and ipso facto become a citizen. Dems want to abolish fracking, let the convicts in prison vote, legalize marijuana, cut the military budget, bring back all the troops, and of course raise taxes — in other words, do everything our enemies are probably hoping we'll do.
Orwell was a genius at illuminating the dark corners of the communist mind. "Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture[.] ... If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever."
Realistically, few high school kids will read every page of 1984. So find the most gruesome 10 pages and assign that. Seriously. Or the most gruesome five pages. How about that section where people find the torture that makes them adore Big Brother? Everybody loves the scene where rats come forward to eat a man's face.
That's a high point, but everything else is also disgusting. The whole society is ugly on purpose because beauty might give people hope. Every character in the book betrays somebody else; that's what you're supposed to do.
In this book, brutality is invincible. There is no hope. All the authorities lie each day; no citizen can ever find the truth. As fast as news is reported one way, it is reported some other way. Orwell adopted the clever device of having the world divided into three countries, and two of them are always at war. The alignments change every few weeks, creating total flux and confusion. No problem — simply hate the country you are told to hate. Would Big Brother lie to you?
Orwell is particularly brilliant at describing the people who run this Slave New World. The one thing required of Party members is enthusiasm. They must be mindless, gung-ho hacks. The job of schools is to produce such people.
It's important to mention that not every socialist idea is intrinsically bad. The problem is that communists never know when to stop. They could start with apple pie and Mother and end up with gulags.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The only solution is to make sure no one has absolute power.
A joke circulating on internet sums up our dilemma: Words might pull you into socialism, but you'll need a gun to fight your way out.
Orwell is famous for this scary insight: "In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Let's all be revolutionaries.
Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them? Price deconstructs educational methods on Improve-Education.org.