Teaching political novels such as 1984 is enough to keep a teacher up at night. I know from experience. But if you’re considering buying a set, remember that creating a safe space for conversation about the ideas that shape our society is worth the lost sleep.
Teaching Political Novels in Tough Climates
The first time I taught 1984 was in Bulgaria. I thought to teach it to the children of Communist party members and political prisoners would be the most charged possible atmosphere I would ever encounter for a study of Orwell.
The party had “disappeared” one student’s grandfather. The mother of another translated for the party leader. Our conversations revolved around how Orwell used his ideas to influence people to see communism a certain way. The word “propaganda” came up a lot, and it was often about Orwell, not about the party.
Those conversations got tricky. One student could barely hold back tears as she defended the Communist way of life. Another reported back from a family interview assignment that Communist life in Bulgaria was exactly as Orwell showed—horrendous.
Yet, despite the difficulties and the stress of those interactions, our 1984 unit was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a teacher. Students engaged and cared. They had to find a way to respect other opinions and consider other perspectives. I had to learn how to facilitate their storms of emotion alongside the development of their ideas.
Fast-forward five years and the political atmosphere in America is just as explosive as my Bulgarian classroom. In this climate, should teachers shy away from material like 1984 so as not to light anyone’s fuse?
I don’t think so.
Last year the Oxford Dictionary declared “post-truth” as its international word of the year. Post-truth means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeal to emotion and personal belief.” It’s an idea that teachers really can’t ignore.
Understanding Fake News
English has always been a highly interdisciplinary subject. Every field, every company, and every politician uses language to share ideas and persuade. In teaching 1984, 21st-century teachers must tackle post-truth and fake news, concepts sweeping through international politics and journalism.
Regardless of personal political leanings, teachers and students can use 1984 as a platform to discuss how information is disseminated, what information can be trusted, and how people decide what is true.
New resources are appearing to help educators grapple with these difficult subjects. The News Literacy Project’s new Checkology Virtual Classroom is one such tool to help students navigate the forms of information now available.
Time to Teach
Many major media outlets are trying to address the issue of what truth means in the new political administration. TIME magazine’s interview of President Trump on Truth and Falsehoods is an interesting starting point. A search for articles pondering the meaning of truth in modern politics will yield plenty to connect Orwell’s ideas of “newspeak” and “The Ministry of Truth” to the questions of society today.
In an era that combines rampant social media with the growing power of post-truth, we can’t afford to not seriously address the issues George Orwell saw coming long ago when he wrote 1984. Now is the time to teach this novel, and teach it well.
You may lose some sleep, but think what your students will gain.