It’s August, 1995. I’m just barely into high school, but in rural North Carolina, 9th grade was still at the local middle school, but located right beside the local high school; which, in turn, was right beside the local elementary school. I’ve decided Doc Martens are the coolest shoes ever and I wear them with everything. I have a pliable metal cuff I wear as an earring sometimes and as a nose ring sometimes. I’m a new girl at a new school, and I want to be liked, but I don’t realize yet that I’m a bit of a weirdo. I read too much, and wear strange clothes. I am too chatty and not ‘cool’. I’m too smart for my own good and I do things like drama club and ROTC. I watch Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morrisette and Hootie and the Blowfish on MTV (back when they had videos and before clips on youtube existed) while getting ready for school.
The only thing I was truly comfortable being with in my own skin was reading. Remember when you were assigned a huge, four inch thick Literature book you had to lug around for class, but the most you ever read out of it was six stories a year? I read that whole thing from cover to cover in the first month. I probably finished the written assignments, too, but there’s no way I would have admitted to it.
Even at such a formative age, I had no problem immersing myself in new worlds and meeting new characters every day. I was reading so far beyond my grade level, in fact, I recall borrowing Danielle Steele’s Jewels from my grandmother, and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter from my grandfather. I found a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in my mom’s belongings, which I read and put back without asking to borrow it. I couldn’t honestly tell you what the popular young adult reading was for the time, but I think Scholastic still came to schools individually with book drives. Man, just remembering that makes me feel old.
Way back in 1995, Twilight hadn’t yet been written as Stephanie Meyer was about 23 years old and had been a good Mormon wife for two years. J.K. Rowling was just finishing her first draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at various Edinborough cafes.
That year in English/Literature we were getting assigned full size books to read in addition to the short stories in the Literature textbooks. I’d already read books like Lord of the Flies (I didn’t like it, but I also missed most of the allegory reading it at such an early age) and Z is for Zachariah, books that had been assigned to students at a higher grade level which were left behind where intrepid young minds could find them. There were a lot of students who either didn’t enjoy reading or just didn’t like that the subject matter wasn’t easy. Cliff’s Notes were readily available, and I daresay many teachers would rather hear regurgitated answers from cribbed notes than try to force any more unwanted morsels of knowledge down the throats of teenagers they babysat. I mean ‘taught’, of course.
I remember Brave New World by Alduous Huxley was required reading that year at my school, and it was my first nugget of understanding that I might not be the only ‘weirdo’ not satisfied with the status quo. Even at my young age, I understood the implications of becoming comfortably numb to life using Soma (or any mild-altering substances) and the dangers of succumbing to social pressures, or not being true to your own direction and will.
Sadly, though, here in 2010 the concept has been sensationalized and demonized by exactly what I think Huxley feared when he wrote that novel. I read recently that a Seattle mom has taken offense on behalf of Native Americans to the portrayal of “savages” in the book, and has requested that the book be removed from the curriculum. Where was she when Twilight was casting young Native American men as vicious werewolves fighting with sparkling vampires over a piece of human meat?
The dismal irony of this situation makes me angry and sad. It’s clear that neither the mom nor the student has read the book, and between the two of them they probably don’t have the mental capacity to fully comprehend the metaphors therein. Combine apathy with an extreme social need for fifteen minutes of fame, and the result is that we now have one more outraged parent wanting to burn one more socially important book.
What Seattle Mom failed to understand was that the society in the book is one composed of and based on mind-controlled, drugged, sexually promiscuous, lab manufactured ‘people’. The ‘savages’ he referenced lived freely, but were kept separate from the mind controlled society. Huxley may have used Native Americans as a loose prototype for this sub-culture, but his intent wasn't to slander them or their beliefs. He glorified the fact that the savages still had choices, something that was taken away from those living in ‘civilized’ society.
Seattle Mom's statement was: "We are not about book burning and we're not radicals," she says. "We're not trying to in any way censor that book, we're just saying it does not belong in high school. It is not appropriate for the curriculum."
If the book is an important or interesting novel for teenagers, she suggests putting it in the library.
"Then if students want to go to the library and check that book out and read it for their own entertainment, that's fine. Most of the kids I've talked to don't even like the book so I doubt it would even get an audience in the library."
(side note: Because polling fifteen year olds on what they like is a sure way to get more vampire novels and less social satire in schools.)
Social critic Neil Postman contrasts the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would not be anyone who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
The more we as a people fight to limit access to books and education, the more lack of understanding and education our society will have. This is not difficult to understand.
Next Tuesday we’ll have a Book Burning featuring Farenheit 451, followed by a viewing of Idiocracy in the fellowship hall. Attendance is mandatory.
Maigen is simple. is smart. is wholesome. is skeevy. is spicy. is delicate. is better. is purer. is 100% more awesome than yesterday. She';s traveling the world and writing about her experiences with life, love, yoga, food, travel and people. Mostly people. Because they';re funny. hear more of her random thoughts @maigen on twitter.
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11.23.10 @ 4:19p
I failed to mention the second (but not secondary) reason this subject made me so angry:
I can't believe that after the Modern Library rated the book as No. 18 in its list of the "100 Best Novels" of all time, a high school would consider dropping such a fundamentally important book from its curriculum at the request of one parent who quite obviously didn't read it.
What's wrong with the SCHOOL? What happens to our educational system when students are not introduced to ideas that challenge them? Because one parent has an erroneous interpretation, the future classes will suffer just a little bit more without that knowledge.
11.23.10 @ 9:34p
For some people, even the concept of impropriety is enough to get them all worked up. Too often these days, though, it seems that those most vociferously arguing for "morality" are the ones with the poorest track record when it comes to practicing it.
I never had to read Brave New World (or 1984, or Animal Farm, et al) in school. It wasn't because it (or the others) were banned; they simply weren't part of the curriculum. We didn't read great books, just those adequately representational compilations of American/British literature. And we were quizzed on comprehension, not analysis.
But when I finally picked up Brave New World, I loved it, and I still do. Nearly all of Huxley's predictions of social engineering have come true. Back when it was published (1932), the social criticism probably cut sharply, because a greater portion of the public would have been scandalized by behavior that was unimaginable. Yet what goes on in the book is practically 2010 status quo -- it didn't take 600+ years for Huxley's twisted vision to come to reality; it scarcely took six decades. Doesn't it make sense that there's something we should take from that?
As for the problem with school -- if the generation in charge opted to refuse ideas designed to challenge them, how much more are they capable of engineering an even more tepid curriculum? Soon we'll be left with the academic equivalent of the Starship Axiom, from WALL-E; you won't have to think; the machine has already engineered your education.
11.29.10 @ 1:59p
via email from my friend Mike:
"Great stuff, really. I like the comparison between Orwell and Huxley in there from Neil Postman. Though, not your words, it still holds true and sadly I feel like we're in a Huxley spawned world. Truth is lost in irrelevant everything in the world and those who care (especially the radicals who's minds may be a bit lost in their cause) are regarded as wackos because they aren't tuning into Idol over saving a starving child.
Brave New World may be one of my favorite books and I want to slap anyone who calls it offensive. It seems that anyone who could call it offensive is saying "printed social commentary is wrong." The balls on that woman for wanting to ban that book for even the subtlest of references to Native Americans seems to be some ploy to get a book that may challenge the modernized-Soma (called Television and Social Media) confused mind of adolescents is appalling. Is that where we'll be in 25 years? Telling kids to stop thinking?
That's bastardizing a society if you ask me, but on the other hand you can't break rules if they aren't there to begin with. Damn the man and may he condemn us for it."
12.1.10 @ 8:14a
I'm not sure we'll have to tell them to stop thinking; I think they'll have already reached that turning point on their own...