Reading  and Teaching 1984: What if Some of Them Don’t “Get It”? by David Schaafsma

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David Schaafsma, University of Illinois at Chicago

Recently I reread 1984 by George Orwell, which I had read the first time in high school in the sixties, have taught many times, and had not reread for decades. I saw that the book was perhaps the best selling book of 2017, which I was pleased and somewhat hopeful about; it signaled a kind of move to reading as resistance. Other darkly dystopian books were also popular, resonant for some with the current U.S. administration: It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis; The Plot Against America—Phillip Roth; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui—Bertolt Brecht; The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood, and so many others, many of which I pretty conventionally reviewed on Goodreads.

However, I looked around and found there were several thousand often angry and dismayingly insightful reviews of 1984, both when it came out in 1949 through today. I had taken copious notes in my recent reading of the book, and had copied out terrifyingly prescient quotes from 1984 on the abolition of science, of thought control via the media, and so on. I was ready to write my review.  But I thought about Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” a dark satire about how to solve the Irish famine:

http://www.secret-satire-society.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Jonathan-Swift-A-Modest-Proposal.pdf

I have been an English teacher for more than forty years. I thought of how students on the right might read 1984, and quickly and somewhat impulsively wrote this darkly satirical review:

1984 is a stoopid and borring and depresing book mz Jones made me read in school that is clearly an attck on the Pressident of the United States Donald Trump. They think they are so smart they can call him Big Borther (Big? He aint fat, his dokter just sed he was fisicaly fit, so there!) and say he lives in Oceania instead of Amerika! You cant foowel me! I know this is Trump!  We elected him, so get over it! God wants Him to be Pressident, my preachur even said so. You r living on the Greatest kuntry in the werld I don’t know what you got to wery about you must have been in the sixties with all those riots aginst the guverment you should all go back to your s***hole kuntries if you don’t love Amerika.

Big Brother is watching you, it sez? Oh, come on. Why worry about that? If you just watch tv and football and have a couple drinks, why do you care if they watchin u?

One part that is stupid, the anti-sex league! In this Great kuntry you can grab anything and anyone you want and have sex with porn stras and nuthin bad kin happen 2 u. Why would we be aginst sex, if you can have anything you want?! All these wimin in the streets, they should be hapy men will even like them! And didn’t the Pressident just give them a tacks brake! Aren’t more women bein hired now?! Fox Nooze even said so. You odn’t need the ERA or whateve my teacher sez, I don’t think wimn should make what I do as a guy! They are wimmin! Comon!! I no for a fact you can’t make them happy! They are clearly mad for no rezin.

What I like the book 1984 sed is that Newspeak or whatever they call it will make the words smaller and ezier. My teacher said to put in kwotes it will be bttter in my repert so here goes 

“The beauty of Newspeak is that each year the vocabulary is getting smaller and smaller! The range of thought gets smaller and smaller. When the language is appropriately small, the revolution will have become complete!”

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” I agree with this cuz I hate werds I never speak I just want to wacth tv and toss a cupple back with my boys.

I don’t know what all those werds even mean, but I want smaller words, and less of them. I know they say Trump speaks on the 4th grade level, I dn’t even know what they mean, he is the Pressident, he can speak on any level he wants he needs to speak so we can understand him don’t he?

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength?” Is this stupid or what? I am strong and can ded lift like 525 pownds! Does that make me ignorant?

But I did like the torture parts. I want to do that to people who are portestin our duly elected Pressident and old white libtards even a guy who sez he was a Repubican Jeff Flake who sez Trump talks like Stalin! Who is Stalin!? I don’t even think he exists! Buncha lies and fake nooze. I aktualy want to tortur this guy Orwell for writin this book and my techur for makin me read it its so stoopid.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

 I say good some people need to be stamped on like people from s***hold kuntries.

I like how they ban books in it because all I watch is tv my football and Fox news with my beer and I am good. Books are too hard they need to make things ezier so this kuntry will be Great again. I am so hunover aftir that game but I perfer that because thinking is hard and makes me sad sometimes.

This book was like anuther book the libtard Englsih techur Mz jones Forced us to read, Farunhite 451 where they burn books which was stupid 2 they call the guy a firman and he burns books haw so stoopid! How do they come up with this crap?!

But it made me think this is whut we shuld do is burn this book, it only makes some people mad and confoozed!!

Like these kwotes I hope will get me a btter grade tho I don’t understand them:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Like huh?!

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” Like The Art of the Deal, maybe?!

“We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. . . Power is not a means; it is an end. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. . . Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” 

Huh? I say agin: Why kant they use ezier werds like in newspeak they said they were gonna use smaller wrds! Liars!

Here’s one I really don’t git: “The only way to preserve a hierarchical society is through poverty and ignorance.”

Another kwote I don’t understand: 

“To think is the only hope.” Winston said this. What could he possibly mean?! 

In retrospect, a couple days later, I have some second thoughts about the review. I think it is provocative, probably divisive. Occasionally nasty. I’ve never taught a student quite like the imagined author of this text, though I certainly have and have had students and family members who express these kinds of ideas, and who actually voted for Trump. I’m a teacher, and see myself as a good person who would never—okay, rarely—vent about a student in the staff room and would not typically make fun of one of my own students. I have been fearful and angry about the current administration on a daily basis, and something in the review reflects those emotions, of which I am not particularly proud. I would never post a piece of writing that an actual student had done such as this, nor would I publically castigate a student for embracing views different than mine. I was initially worried about how some of my Republican family might respond to the review, those few that still follow me on Facebook or Goodreads. I don’t intend to be mean-spirited, but maybe it reads that way, even to me at times.

Still, I posted it, and think it could be useful in the debate about these issues. I think we who teach English embrace a kind of romantic view that reading is knowledge that will change the world, by which we mean most people’s minds. Yet sometimes a text can confirm one’s views, and why would we hope that all people would respond identically to a piece of literature? Isn’t this one of the things we most fear about 1984, that any kind of media–including writing–might make us think alike? But some people read and see the opposite of what we intend:

I recall teaching Our America by LeAlan Jones in my Young Adult Literature class as an anti-racist text about living on the south side of Chicago, featuring honest portrayals of those living there, sometimes sympathetic depictions of loving families, sometimes painful portraits of violence and drug addiction.  Having taught that book to future teachers, I have heard stories of their teaching the book in their all- or mostly-white classrooms, with a few of their students seemingly having their racist views confirmed by the book! I thought of Our America and similar responses to other texts I have taught as I wrote my review. I thought about how young readers just don’t sometimes “get” the intentions of teachers and authors and what that means for us as teachers.

In my Facebook feed, my former student Sarah Donovan fairly quickly posted a thoughtful and insightful response to my satire, including a review of 1984 by one of her seventh grade students that seemed to “right the ship” for me in my fearful and angry and despondent reading of the book, a hopeful view for those that are anticipating teaching or have taught the book. In Sarah’s class, choice reading is a priority, so students develop to-read lists and have class time every day to read and confer with Sarah about their reading experiences.  They also respond to their reading however they wish, and Matthew, the student who read 1984 by choice, chose to write a letter to his teacher.  Here is Matthew’s take on 1984 (shared with his and his mother’s consent): 

January 19, 2018

Dear Dr. Donovan,

As you already know, I have been progressing through my book in a sluggish manner, as I have only read 48 pages since my last blog post. I am still reading 1984: A Novel by George Orwell.

While I have only read about 50 pages this week, that surely doesn’t mean that I am not interested in the book. Actually, far from it. When I start reading this book, I don’t want to put it down-the dystopian theme and engraved message to be afraid of big government honestly intrigues me. The only issue that I am having is that there are usually 300-350 words on each page, which can make it take longer than usual to finish a normal amount of pages in one reading. As the book is about 300 pages, I am predicting that this may take me longer to finish that I would’ve expected.

In this reading, I as the reader followed the main character, Winston, through his place of work in the Outer Party, which is similar to the middle class, except they all work for the government. In this case, Winston works in the Ministry of Truth (Minitru in Newspeak*) where he rewrites old sources of media that the Party declares “doubleplusungood”** and “not true”, which is also a brainwashing tactic. We also take a dive in to the lower class of Oceania. Oceania is the mega-nation where Winston lives. He enters a Prole community, and starts talking with a older man hoping to get some justification in his mind that the world was not always as the party says it is, where before the revolution, everyone was worse off, and the world was run by greedy, cruel capitalists, with their top hats. I stopped reading at this point.

Even though they have lower socioeconomic status, the Proles, or lower class of Oceania, are better off than the Outer Party members, or the middle class. One of the parts in this reading that really spoke this to me was here, “..but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings… The great majority of Proles did not even have telescreens*** in their homes. (71)”

What this quote shows me is that even though the Proles should be worse off, as they are overworked, robbed of a decent live, and live in overcrowded slums, they are more free than the middle class. They are not constantly spied on, as the Party does not expect them to form their own political opinions. The thought police aren’t constantly on the lookout for thought-criminals, and they can do as they please, without interference from the Party, or Big Brother****. As the Party itself says, “Proles and animals are free. (72)” Thus, I can fully claim that the Proles are better off than Outer Party members, if you view having first amendment freedoms as being more free than your fellow comrade****** whom does not.

Best of wishes,

Matthew

P.S.: Please view below for an explanation of the astixed words.

Astrix explanation:

*= The Party’s made up language to help brainwash their people, and eliminate words such as “freedom”, “Peace”, or any word that could allow people to make a free thought.

**= A Newspeak word that substitutes words such as “Excellent”, “Splendid” or “Superb”.

***= A T.V. like item that has a screen that allows Big Brother, or anyone with access to view the other side; a spy camera with a T.V. attached.

****= The leader of the Party. Thought criminals debate whether or not he is a real person.

*****= A substitution for Mrs., Mr., or any surname that is enforced by the party to bring everyone down to the same level, as with the principles of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.

David Schaafsma is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he directs the Program in English Education. He teaches courses in English teaching methods, graphic novels and young adult literature. He’s the author of five books and is a former editor of the journal English Education. He’s published numerous articles on community-based literacy, but also increasingly increasingly writes fiction and poetry. He’s the father of five children and has five siblings living in three states. He lives in Oak Park just outside Chicago. He as rated 5744 books on Goodreads!@DavidSchaafsma1 

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