Animal Farm, revisited
I had the best conversation with my wife last night.
She had just finished reading Animal Farm for her book club. She hadn’t read it before, maybe because she’s from Poland. (Animal Farm is the allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union as told through the lives of talking farm animals in England. Written by George Orwell and published in 1945. The whole book is online and free here.)
I have read this book probably 20 times. I taught this book 4 times per year for three years straight. I wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t such an important and great book that is also particularly easy to read.
When I taught Animal Farm, I would often pair it with Harrison Bergeron, a dystopian short story written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961.
Set in 2081, Harrison Bergeron tells the story of a United States that has finally achieved equality; an equality the government enforces ruthlessly through the office of the Handicapper General. Strong people are forced to wear weights in order to prevent them from taking unfair advantage of their strength. Smart people have to wear headphones that emit piercing noises every few seconds to distract them from their thoughts. Attractive people wear ugly masks, newscasters stutter and so on. Disobedience is not tolerated.
As I was talking to my hot wife about Animal Farm and Harrison Bergeron, I was inundated with teaching flashbacks. I was suddenly teaching Animal Farm and Harrison Bergeron in my 12th grade Government class.
It was one of my favorite things as a teacher. There is a lot to chew on. And we look at these two stories while also reading Locke and Hobbes. For a solid week, we are neck deep in the state of nature, the origins and purpose of government, the social contract and state-sanctioned violence.
Which is the more important value, freedom or equality? How would you define freedom and equality? Should the government use violence to enforce these values? Which story would you rather live in?…
That last question always got people talking in class. After about a half minute somebody would argue that the question makes no sense unless we know what kind of animal we would be on Animal Farm….Exactly!!!…Now we’re talking about class structure and how it might interact with freedom, equality and violence.
As I was reliving those fierce and fascinating class discussions I started to remember individual students who had spoken. This is why teachers teach. These kids were in it. Hungry, smart and present.
And just after I had finished basking in those memories and patting myself on the back for planning and executing such an amazing and compelling unit on the Origins of Government, I started to remember the students who didn’t participate in the discussion.
Over time, I became more prepared for them. For kids who weren’t participating, I was ready with other supports. We read a lot of the book in class. And we would take notes together with graphic organizers. We would get in groups for reciprocal teaching. We would preview difficult vocabulary words because dictionaries are far too complex. I would assign a chapter or two per night; about 8-12 pages.
Most students didn’t read the book. In fact, I feel confident saying that almost nobody read the book. After all that….
Am I a bad teacher or are you guys really fucking lazy?
I’m doing my best. I think I put together a pretty interesting unit here. We are studying the basic ideas that animate all of humanity; the very origins of social structures and government. This is shit you don’t absolutely have to know, but you’ll be better off in the long run if you stop for a second to learn some names and basic ideas…
I care that you learn, but, unfortunately, I am not able to care for you.
I gave you a story about talking fucking animals that’s written on a fifth grade level. You are all between the ages of 16 and 23. We read half of it in class. We also read the entire Harrison Bergeron story aloud in class.
And you don’t have any idea what either of these stories is about?
Then fuck you. You’re an idiot.
Every second I spend with you is a second stuffed up my ass that could have been used on somebody else in this room who gives a shit or is at least willing to pretend.