Monday, April 19, 2010

It Didn't Come True

Back in the mid-1990s, I was teaching English at Cicero-North Syracuse High School. I needed to put together lessons based on the state and district curriculum, selecting works of literature from the books available. I spent a lot of time in the storeroom looking through the stacks and choosing what I wanted to teach. One of the novels that I found deeply buried was George Orwell's 1984. I decided that I'd ask about it at the next faculty meeting, just to verify that it was acceptable for my 11th-grade Regents class. So I did.

Now, one of my fellow faculty members was a bit, shall we say, spacey. I'm pretty sure she's the one who taught all of my students to start every single blasted essay with the words, "In literature as in life..." I ended up having to tell them that beginning an essay in that rote fashion would earn an automatic loss of significant points.

Anyway, when I asked why nobody taught 1984 anymore, she dove right in. "Well, we all used to teach it, but then 1984 came and went and it didn't happen so we stopped." I'm not sure, but I think my chin made a loud slap when it hit the table. One of the other teachers rolled her eyes and informed me that the novel had been used as part of a Sci-fi elective course that stopped being offered when the teacher who taught it retired, but I know that first teacher wasn't the only person who probably believes that 1984 was some sort of prediction of the future that failed to come true.

But inasmuch as it didn't come true, we have to wonder if that isn't because the book shone a light on the sort of behaviour that leads to regimes like Orwell described in the book. And inasmuch as "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom" I think it's vital that this book continue being read, or we may be less likely to spot the dangerous trends toward tyranny and stop them before they can erupt into full-blow totalitarianism. Likewise, the references made by those who HAVE read it will be lost on those who haven't.

For instance, a recent article on the blog Popehat, referred to the curious case of British scientist and journalist Simon Singh, who raised some serious questions about claims of the British Chiropractic Association that they could cure a variety of childhood maladies. For which he was promptly sued under Britain's whinge-friendly libel laws. (I just recently learned that whinge is a real word and I like to use it since I missed so many previous opportunities.) When Singh was ultimately cleared by the British courts, they issued the following statement (in part):

Asking judges to rule on matters of scientific controversy would be to “invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth”, the judgment said.
 Well that's all well and good, except that it makes almost no sense to anyone who hasn't read 1984. I mean, a Ministry of Truth sounds pretty nifty taken out of context.

So no, we didn't quite end up living in a world crushed under the weight of structured, guaranteed military conflict designed to keep totalitarian governments in power. But we struggle against the same infringements on liberty, individual rights, and governments overstepping their role on a regular basis. We need to keep reading books like 1984 to ensure that we recognize when a "good idea" like "let's make it so you can't say bad, untrue things about people" turns into a ridiculous set of libel laws in otherwise freedom-loving places like Great Britain. Hey, look: has the book for ten bucks. Your local or school library no doubt has copies as well. Why not read it again? Or just read it.


  1. Mike, 1984 and Animal Farm are the two great political novels of our time. Not among the top, they are the top. I'll concede that Animal Farm is dealing more with historical than contemporary issues but 1984 is a MUST READ for everyone.
    Thanks for stopping by blog and commenting. And if you have vocabulary lists for either book, either the whole book or my chapter, could you send them along for my vocabulary site?
    John, aka BBat50 & Mayor,

  2. John - it seems like I encounter references to these novels really often, so I suspect that most of the world is probably inclined to agree with you and me about the importance and continuing relevance of these novels. At least to the extent that they think about them at all.

    I checked my files and found some tests and essay questions for 1984, but no vocab, sorry. Either I didn't do vocab with that novel, or the file has gotten lost sometime in the last 15+ years.

    Thanks for your comments. I hope you find enough of interest to stop back in the future.