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Teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2017

Back in the mists of time, I planned a unit on Dystopian Fiction for my year 9 students.  Armed with a brief to stretch and challenge a sparky top set, I decided to teach them George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.  I had no idea quite what a can of worms I was about to unleash.   It is pretty well impossible to read Orwell’s words in 2017 without staring, open-mouthed, at the events which are unfolding across the pond.  There have been times where I have been tempted to change the title of my scheme of work from ‘Dystopia’ to ‘Dystrumpia’.

Orwell’s may be a communist and not a capitalist nightmare, but the parallels between Oceania and the USA are so chilling and so sharp that my Year 9 scheme of work is in a constant state of mutability.  Last week, I showed my students the now-iconic photographs juxtaposing crowds at Trump’s inauguration with those at Obama’s.   I followed it with an achingly factual news report which let the pictures speak for themselves, blandly and neutrally reporting the Trump administration’s claims that reports of poor attendance came from the ‘dishonest media’.   We then turned to Nineteen Eighty-Four, finding Orwell’s words “The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”  It was almost too much of a gift.  Of course I am not the first to note these parallels.   It comes as no surprise that Nineteen Eighty-Four is enjoying a sudden resurgence in popularity, and is currently at the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

We are living in a world of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternate truth’, but we are also living in a world of free speech, so the classroom needs to be an environment where all reasonable opinions are aired and discussed.  Perhaps the Trump inauguration picture was photo-shopped, some of my more savvy students opined from the left field.  Certainly, they decided, Big Brother would have loved that particular technological device. The day after my Trump inauguration lesson, one of my students told me that a simple ‘what did you learn at school today?’ conversation at home had turned into a heated family political debate.  We live in a world where opinions can be expressed, in the classroom and in the home, and it is something that is be cherished.

A couple of years ago, students had to analyse the spoken language of Barack Obama for their English Language GCSE.  It was a privilege to luxuriate in such linguistic elegance and control.  How far we have come.  A vocabulary that is diminished, a loose, rambling and unfocused style of speech utterly devoid of poetry, integrity, and frequently syntax.  But you know what, it works.  I’m going to tell you this, it works.  The people have spoken.  They know it works.  A student wanting to write as well as Obama is aiming high, but it is easy to imitate Trump.  The question we have to keep asking, of ourselves and to our students, is why has it worked?  And I think in despair of poor Winston Smith toiling in his cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, doctoring news articles with a version of the beautiful English language that is being systematically cut down to the bone.  Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, is quite simply ‘the destruction of words’, a calculated move to narrow one’s ability to think.

Nobody knows how this will all end.  In the meantime, I will continue to link the unfolding drama in the USA to the brilliant and eerily prophetic prose of George Orwell.  It is my small way of helping the next generation to realise the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of thought – and the importance of truth. Whatever the truth is.