Tuesday, May 7, 2013

U.K. schools BAN best friends -- dystopian fiction made real!

In March of 2012, I was teaching a Composition and Literature to a small class of community college students.  We were just finishing up our first of two novellas – Anthem, by Ayn Rand, which I have referenced in this blog before – when my plans for the rest of the semester received a most welcome, though unexpected, shake-up.  While surfing the internet, as I often did to relax just before a class, I came across an article in the Sun (excerpted here, following this link to read the full text):
Schools ban children making best friends.
Teachers are banning schoolkids from having best pals — so they don’t get upset by fall-outs. Instead, the primary pupils are being encouraged to play in large groups. Educational psychologist Gaynor Sbuttoni said the policy has been used at schools in Kingston, South West London, and Surrey. She added: “I have noticed that teachers tell children they shouldn’t have a best friend and that everyone should play together. They are doing it because they want to save the child the pain of splitting up from their best friend. But it is natural for some children to want a best friend. If they break up, they have to feel the pain because they’re learning to deal with it.”
Rand’s Anthem was inspired by fellow countryman Yevgeny (Eugene) Zamyatin’s 1924 novella We. Ironically, We was not even published in Russian in the U.S.S.R., from which a young Ayn Rand (born Alisa Rosenbaum) emigrated, until 1988, but existed in English and French translations before then.  Allow me to digress for a moment to channel Wikipedia (sigh) to promote Zamyatin’s book, which has not received anywhere near the love that Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and even Anthem have received by American educators:
George Orwell averred that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) must be partly derived from We. However, in a 1962 letter to Christopher Collins, Huxley says that he wrote Brave New World as a reaction to H.G. Wells's utopias long before he had heard of We. According to We translator Natasha Randall, Orwell believed that Huxley was lying. Kurt Vonnegut said that in writing Player Piano (1952), he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We."  Ayn Rand's Anthem (1938) has many significant similarities to We, although it is stylistically and thematically different.
Orwell began Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) some eight months after he read We in a French translation and wrote a review of it. Orwell is reported as "saying that he was taking it as the model for his next novel." [Clarence] Brown writes that for Orwell and certain others, We "appears to have been the crucial literary experience." [Alex] Shane states that "Zamyatin's influence on Orwell is beyond dispute." [Robert] Russell, in an overview of the criticism of We, concludes that "1984 shares so many features with We that there can be no doubt about its general debt to it," however there is a minority of critics who view the similarities between We and 1984 as "entirely superficial."
Anthem takes place in a dystopian society of uncertain date.  The society exists in the wake of some grand cataclysm – a war and/or political upheaval not unlike that wrought by the Khmer Rouge.  (For a more modern comparison, Rand's fictional setting is an only slightly exaggerated version of present-day North Korea.) The current regime in Rand's nameless realm has been in power long enough for all but the most aged of citizens to have any inkling of what life might have once been like, and their ramblings are dismissed as the incoherent talk of the soon-to-die elderly:
“At forty, they are worn out. At forty, they are sent to the Home of the Useless, where the Old Ones live. The Old Ones do not work, for the State takes care of them. They sit in the sun in summer and they sit by the fire in winter. They do not speak often, for they are weary. The Old Ones know that they are soon to die. When a miracle happens and some live to be forty-five, they are the Ancient Ones, and children stare at them when passing by the Home of the Useless.” (chapter 1)
The olden days are referred to by the ruling Council as the Unmentionable Times, and any reference to the history that predates the current society is harshly punished, as is any attempt to express an individual thought or preference.  One of the major devices of the novel is the disappearance of singular personal pronouns form the language, to reflect its Borg-like eradication of individual identities in favor of a hive-like collective, as can be seen in this excerpt (paragraphing has been modified from its original source):
“Our name is Equality 7-2521, as it is written on the iron bracelet which all men wear on their left wrists with their names upon it. We are twenty-one years old. We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tall. Ever have the Teachers and the Leaders pointed to us and frowned and said: "There is evil in your bones, Equality 7-2521, for your body has grown beyond the bodies of your brothers." But we cannot change our bones nor our body.
“We were born with a curse. It has always driven us to thoughts which are forbidden. It has always given us wishes which men may not wish. We know that we are evil, but there is no will in us and no power to resist it. This is our wonder and our secret fear, that we know and do not resist. We strive to be like all our brother men, for all men must be alike. Over the portals of the Palace of the World Council, there are words cut in the marble, which we repeat to ourselves whenever we are tempted:  
    'We are one in all and all in one.
    There are no men but only the great WE,
    One, indivisible and forever.'
“We repeat this to ourselves, but it helps us not. These words were cut long ago. There is green mould in the grooves of the letters and yellow streaks on the marble, which come from more years than men could count. And these words are the truth, for they are written on the Palace of the World Council, and the World Council is the body of all truth. Thus has it been ever since the Great Rebirth, and farther back than that no memory can reach. But we must never speak of the times before the Great Rebirth, else we are sentenced to three years in the Palace of Corrective Detention. It is only the Old Ones who whisper about it in the evenings, in the Home of the Useless. They whisper many strange things, of the towers which rose to the sky, in those Unmentionable Times, and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of the lights which burned without flame. But those times were evil. And those times passed away, when men saw the Great Truth which is this: that all men are one and that there is no will save the will of all men together.”
 Not only do the citizens of this realm have no proper names (referred to instead as an ironic attribute – “Liberty,” “Equality,” “Brotherhood,” followed by a code number), but they wear clothing of no color, live in group barracks of no ornamentation, and are expressly forbidden from all forms of artistic expression.  They may not choose their course of study, their profession, or even their friends:
“International 4-8818 and we are friends. This is an evil thing to say, for it is a transgression, the great Transgression of Preference, to love any among men better than the others, since we must love all men and all men are our friends. So International 4-8818 and we have never spoken of it. But we know.”
 It goes without saying that such things as romance and love are taboo in the extreme.

I won’t summarize the whole piece – you can read it; it’s extremely short.  Suffice it to say that it is a rare dystopian novel with an optimistic ending, which makes it unique among those titles I have previously mentioned.  I also like it for working with lower-level students, because the narrative is as rich as any title, but the lexile is relatively low, and does not require advanced reading skills or stamina (like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World) or a complex understanding of  history  (like Animal Farm) or the ability to navigate satirical and magical realist elements to get at the core theme (like “Harrison Bergeron” – this is particularly difficult for younger readers or ESL readers).

We had just read the last few short chapters when I came across the aforementioned Sun article, and I had an epiphany.  I needed to incorporate this into my class.  Most works of fiction remain works of fiction, and despite having familiar themes, their plots and the details thereof typically safely ensconced in a world of irreality that allows us to enjoy them as works of creativity more or less divorced from actual life.  Here, however, was life, imitating art.  A rare opportunity to show students a piece of a fictional world made very much real.  (p.s. Not surprisingly, the Objectivist community picked up on this story as well.)

I shared the article with my students, asked them what they thought of it.  Their position echoed my own, even when I chose a devil’s advocate position to try and talk them down from it.  I decided to take a week to teach them proper business letter format, and they used it to write Russell Hobby, of the National Association of Head Teachers, a letter expressing their thoughts, if not their outright dismay.  I sent the letters to Mr. Hobby, along with a cover letter of my own, and a copy of Rand’s novel.  I am pleased to say that he responded to my students’ letters, and mine, each individually.
For the record, Mr. Hobby is not in favor of the ban, and the NAHT does not apparently have the power to stop the practice – it is a school-site decision, but one that is, even now, a year later, apparently still out there as a viable model for teaching children, as this news item from just this week (May 2013) suggests:
Pupils at £14,000-a-year primary school are BANNED from having best friends as headteacher tries to prevent hurt feelings. […] “I would certainly endorse a policy which says we should have lots of good friends, not a best friend. I would be happy to make it school policy, although it would need to be age-appropriate.  By the time they are 11, 12 or 13 they are making up their own minds. But when they are aged between four and ten, [the ban] would be helpful for parents, teachers and children[,” the Headmaster said.]
Of the ban, the headmaster of the aforementioned Battersea prep school quipped confidently, “There is sound judgment behind it.”

Really?  I’m aghast.  Are youI’m just A.S.K.ing…

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