Society and the Individual: A Unit Plan

 

As teens mature, one of their chief challenges lies in defining who they are and what they believe – becoming their own individual self.  What are the conditions necessary to promote this process of personal development?   How does society either help or hinder this process? 

Literature provides us with many cautionary tales of the damage humanity is capable of inflicting on itself when societies go awry.  The dystopian genre of novels, in particular, gives us a safe, thought-provoking way to vicariously experience many possible scenarios.  Authors of these novels are influenced by many real and likely events, such as outbreaks of war, population explosions and scarcity of resources, and threats from outsiders.  One of the richest themes for exploration with teens is the possibility of a society attempting to control its citizens and enforce conformity and sameness.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was written in the climate of recovery from the nightmare of the Nazi reign of terror, the McCarthy Hearings, and cold war/atomic bomb scares.  Edward Eller writes, in An Overview of Fahrenheit 451,

“…the U.S. government responded to its fear of growing communist influence with attempts to censor the media and its productions, including literature.  In other words, it responded with the same tactics of tyranny implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union…Fahrenheit 451 appeared in the climate of technologically supported suspicion and censorship, a climate which seemed to promise the possibility of the mass conformity in our citizenry.”     

Students should find great value in exploring the theme of society-mandated conformity and the individual’s complicity in creating a culture of sameness .  In order to further an understanding of  this topic, I propose a curriculum for tenth grade students based on the canonical novel Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and supported further by a number of other young adult literature and resources.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is set in the not too distant future, in a dystopian society that has grown dark and disturbing.  The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman, although that term has evolved to mean someone who intentionally sets fire to books.  Indeed the culture that exists in the novel is one without libraries (personal or public), or any kind of worthwhile artistic or intellectual pursuit.  Children go to school to learn sports and games and take TV classes, and recreation includes car chases and intentional vehicular manslaughter.  Adults are mesmerized by TV walls in their homes that talk to them as though they are actual family members, and remain curiously numb to the imminent threat of war.

            After a chance meeting with a young girl, who has the curious habit of questioning things Montag has always accepted, and a brutal book burning episode that leaves a woman dead, Montag begins to question the status quo.  The first stirrings of a kind of spiritual hunger galvanize Montag and he steals a book and comes to believe that the answers to what he is seeking lie in books.  After visiting an old professor, Montag gains the courage to face down and murder his boss, the fire chief (who has come to destroy the many books found in Montag’s possesion).  After the murder, Montag flees the city and meets up with a group of disaffected intellectuals who now live on the fringes of society.  Montag joins them, and after city is destroyed in the war, Montag leads the group back into the city to help rebuild.

            Fahrenheit 451 contains many passages that help illustrate the intellectual and spiritual poverty that occurred when books and intellectual discourse were banned. Montag’s despair is almost palpable in this speech to the old professor, “Nobody listens any more…I just want someone to hear what I have to say.  And maybe if I talk long enough, it’ll make sense.  And I want you to teach me to understand what I read.” (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)

            But the most harsh, yet eloquent, apology for their stripped-down, barren society comes from Beatty, the fire chief, in his rambling history of the fireman’s job, “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God…With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers…instead of examiners, critics, knowers and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be…we must all be alike.  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy…A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.  Burn it….Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)

            As Rafeeq McGiveron writes in Extrapolation, (Fall 1996), “…even more dangerous than the pressure groups that attempt to peck away at the freedom of expression and, eventually, thought, is our own desire for easy gratification...and when we allow such pleasurably escapist mass exploitation to replace our thoughtful interest in the real world, we abnegate our intellectual and moral responsibilities as human beings.”

 

Launching the Unit

 

1.  Before reading and discussing Fahrenheit 451, consider using one of the following activities: Play the song “Imagine” by John Lennon.  (You could also provide them with a copy of the lyrics.)  Have the students discuss the meaning of lyrics such as:

-“Imagine there’s no heaven…no hell below us…Imagine all the people living for today…”  What does living for today mean?  Living as though there are no consequences for our actions?

-“Imagine there’s no countries…Nothing to kill or die for…And no religion too… What would that kind of world look like?  Imagine living without convictions.

-“Imagine no possessions…I wonder if you can…No need for greed or hunger…Imagine all the people sharing all the world”  Are there any possessions you would not want to give up?  All people sharing – who decides on each person’s portion?

  1. A discussion question or Sustained Silent Writing Prompt might be, Since Fahrenheit 451 is about society-condoned book burning, are there any books you’ve read that you would fight to preserve?  Why?  What makes it worth saving?  Also, have students log on to the American Library Association Banned Books Site.  Have students discuss possible reasons/motivations for banning any of the books on the list.
  2. Read the attached poem, “On Education,” Anonymous.  Ask students how it makes them feel.  Have they ever felt pressure to be more “like” other students?  Have they ever been encouraged to ignore their own individuality, by parents? By teachers?
  3. While students are reading Fahrenheit 451, consider using the Philosophical           Chairs Activity to explore some of the controversial topics in the novel.  Possible topics include: Under the threat of impending war, literature, poetry and art become unimportant, or Television will bring the downfall of the written word, Classic works of literature ought to be edited for racist phrases and reprinted in a newer more “correct” version.
  4. Also while students are reading the novel, take time to look at the poem Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold:
    1. The Sea is Calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; -- on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,

Listen! You hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

Ask students to locate Beatty’s condemnation of Montag for reading the poem aloud.  What did Beatty mean when he said reading the poem “was the act of a silly damn snob.  Give a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he’s the Lord of all Creation.  You think you can walk on water with your books?”  Discuss with the students the idea that someone who knows poetry is somehow different/better than other people?  Why do they think people might come to believe this?

 

6. After students have read Fahrenheit 451, consider discussing any of the following:  Have their ideas about how censorship happens changed?  Which of the characters in the novel were the real victims/casualties of their conformist society?  How did they contribute to their own status as victims?  How was Montag able to break free? 

 

7.  Consider a writing prompt based on Granger’s book, “The Fingers in the Glove; the Proper Relationship between the Individual and Society.”  What would such a book say?  Why would Granger have become an outcast because of it?

Extending the Unit

There are many possibilities for additional young adult reading on the topic.  A book pass activity would be a good way to introduce these stories to the class.  In order that everyone in the class benefit from the outside reading done by their classmates, have all the individuals who pick a particular title form a group and conceive of a way to introduce the society described in their particular novel to the class.  These presentations could take any form: illustrated murals, posters, sample newspapers from their society, etc.  After hearing the presentations, students can discuss pros/cons of each society.

Young Adult Literature Selections:

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) – centers around Jonas, a young boy about to enter into adulthood in his community, where all choice, all differences, and all human aspiration have been eradicated.  This rite of passage is marked with a ceremony where each 12-yr old is assigned a specific job, based on their observable inclinations.  Jonas is chosen to become The Receiver, the one person in the community who holds the collective memories of all human history and obsolete human impulses.  The plot turns around the question of what Jonas will do now that he has been forever changed by this new knowledge.

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry (2000) – is the story of Kira, a crippled young woman, who is forced to make her own way in her harsh and primitive community, after the sudden death of her mother.  Kira’s talent and artistry in weaving leads to a new job and elevated position, but her growing awareness of the brutality of those around her, as well as her friendship with a kind-hearted and resourceful young boy, and the gift he brings her, give her the courage to try to make a difference.

Messenger by Lois Lowry (2004) – is the continuing story of Matty, Kira’s young friend from Gathering Blue.  He has moved to Village, where he now lives with Seer, a kindly blind man who has been a father to him.  Now change is coming to Village, once a tolerant and peaceful community.  Citizens are beginning to display shocking selfishness and malevolence, while at the same time, Matty is discovering a special talent of his own that may save everyone he loves.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1992) – is the futuristic story of a teen, nicknamed Ender, who has been singled out to participate in a special school where he will be given unique training in order to defeat their society’s alien enemy.  Is he being programmed unfairly?  Can he and should he fight the system?

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer –  follows the story of Matt, who is growing up on a farm in the southwestern United States, sometime in the future.  He is a clone developed and being raised for the medical benefit of “El Patron.”  Matt grows up quickly, and finds a way to escape, but is taken to a work farm, where things are not much better.

Eva by Peter Dickinson -  is the story of  a young girl, Eva, whose father is a scientist studying chimpanzees – one of the more important species of animals left on the earth of the future.  One day, there is a horrible accident, and Eva wakes up to find her brain has been implanted in the body of a chimpanzee.  The story continues over the course of Eva’s life and covers many controversial ideas about our society’s values.

Feed by M. T. Anderson -  concerns a group of young people who are connected to each other and something else by a “feed” that provides whatever they want to know.  The group journeys to the moon, where the feed continues to provide them with both essential and nonessential information.  The story is a satire that pokes holes in the accepted norms of modern day living.

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie is the story of two boys who are exiled to the country for re-education during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  They meet a young woman with a secret stash of western classic novels, and the world opens for them.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is the story of Howard Roark, who must fight his society’s culture of artistic conformity and anti-individualism, so that he can create the kind of architecture he believes in.

It’s Your World – If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers by Mikki Halpin – Gives teens how-to ideas for making changes in different areas of their lives

Concluding Activities

At the end of the unit, students should have some pretty strong opinions about where society can go wrong and what it needs to do to ensure a climate that encourages individuality. After a brief discussion of some of the political/ideological controversies we are currently experiencing in the U.S., i.e., the war on terrorism, erosion of civil liberties for national security purposes, pressure groups demanding media firings, etc… Consider having the students write letters to their state or U.S. senator outlining their concerns.  Ask students to share their letters with the rest of the class. (See “Grief, Thought, and Appreciation: Re-examining Our Values Amid Terrorism through The Giver” by Angela Beumer Johnson, Jeffrey W. Kleismit, Antje  J. Williams (ALAN Review, Summer 2002)

Another activity could involve students creating their own collages displaying headlines and photographs culled from major magazines and newspapers with disturbing stories of government’s encroach on personal freedoms.  These collages could be created in a poster format and then displayed around the classroom or school hallways.

Works Cited

Anderson, M.T., (2002) Feed, Cambridge: Candlewick Press

Arnold, M., “Dover Beach” ((2001), The 100 Best Poems of All Time, New York: Warner Books

Anonymous, “On Education,” (1995) Pierced By a Ray of Sun, New York: Harper Collins

Bradbury, R. (1953) Fahrenheit 451,  New York: Random House

Dickinson, P., (1988) Eva, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Co.

Eller, E. (1998) “An Overview of Fahrenheit 451,” Exploring Novels, Gale

Farmer, N., (2002) The House of the Scorpion, New York: Simon and Schuster

Halpin, M., (2004)  It’s Your World – If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activisim For Teenagers, New York: Simon Pulse

Johnson, A. Kleismit, J. Williams, A. (2002) “Grief, Thought, and Appreciation: Re-examing Our Values Amid Terrorism Through The Giver,”  ALAN Review

Lowry, L. (1993) The Giver, New York: Random House

Lowry, L. (2000) Gathering Blue, New York: Random House

Lowry, L. (2004) Messenger, New York: Random House

McGiveron, R.  (1996) “What ‘Carried the Trick’? Mass Exploitation and the Decline of Thought in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451,” (Extrapolation v 37.n3)

Rand, A., (1943) The Fountainhead, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co.

Sijie, D., Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, New York: Random-House