Friday, May 24, 2013

Why We're Doomed (and Other Thoughts for a Happy Weekend)

Yesterday, in class, a student was doing a presentation on the novel 1984. (It was his choice, so don't roll your eyes at me, young man/woman. I'm not pushing my anti-groupthink agenda in class. Much.) The project, based on an assignment my kids do in grade school called "The Mystery Bag," was for my students to read a sci-fi novel, picked off of a list I provided, and then to summarize the book for the class and to present four objects that had significance in the plot and themes -- to explain why the objects are important to the story.

(1984 just yielded the cutest little stuffed rats...)

Anyway, at one point, my student pulled out a thesaurus. He went on to explain that he went to numerous bookstores looking for a dictionary because he wanted to explain the concept of the government changing words in books -- changing meanings of words -- in order to control the population. He then made what I think was a brilliant observation.

Winston, from the film 1984 (MGM)
When he asked one of the bookstore managers why they had no dictionaries, the manager told him  that there is no need to stock them because everyone uses online dictionaries now. My student then explained how this horrified him; that it occurred to him that, if we stop printing dictionaries, it would be easy for government (or any other clandestine and insidious group) to start altering word meanings. Without a hard copy, how would we prove it was happening?

I think you will agree that this was an excellent point -- a parallel to what goes on in 1984 and a valid fear, going forward in the tunnel of human history. In short, an "A+" point.

Immediately after he said this, I looked around the room. Now, as you may have gathered from numerous teen-lauding posts, I love my students. Usually.  I often find more hope for the future, in my daily interactions with them, than fear. On this particular occasion, however, it was disappointing.

After my presenter made his observation, there were eye-rolls and "what's-wrong-with-this-guy" faces a-plenty. And there stood Winston before the masses.

We're doomed.


  1. There are also reasons for private-sector paranoia: Some newspapers update the online versions of their stories without making it clear that previous versions were erroneous or biased; and companies like Amazon and Apple are capable of exercising a shocking amount of control over what you can or can't see on your mobile device.

    Still, there are other, more banal, reasons to be worried. Whether we get hit by a solar flare, an electromagnetic pulse, or whatever, it's possible that within our lifetimes, we may learn firsthand how fragile our digital files really are.

    1. It's true, Jeff. Orwellians focus only on government. The sleight of hand extend way beyond Washington or insert-your-governmental-setting here. The second part was pointed out by my cousin, a librarian earlier of Facebook and it made me shiver then, too. Too true.

  2. It's funny, when I first started reading this, I thought, "That's nice, it's good to teach Orwellian skepticism and wariness, but what of Huxley's apathy?" And you answered my thought.

    At least you have at least one student who thinks about the issue enough to feel concern.

    ~ Matt

    1. Ha! We aim to please, Matt. Good point about my one student. I hope kids like him grow up strong. I really do.

  3. Reading this referred me to the stereotypical classroom setting you might find in a film from the 70s or 80s -- where your student may have received a wedgie after class, followed by a healthy dose of "Nerrrrrrrd".

    While most might find this vexing (and don't get me wrong, I'm quite pessimistic on most occasions), I'll continue to enjoy my weekend after reading this; not at the thought that we are doomed in a setting where the majority would find your student's thoughts deserving of the proverbial wedgie, but at the thought that there are minds in the youth of today that see why Orwell may have been so concerned. There may be hope yet.

    1. True, Anonymous -- this can certainly be a glass half full/empty thing. Sadly, the numbers point to empty, for me. I fear my insightful student will be, as many have, preaching to the voluntarily and selectively deaf.