3. What is the role of dissent in maintaining a free society?
For all who are finding it difficult to manage classroom discussions on politics and current events, or Someone in Particular – discussions a teacher hopes will be honest and constructive, that suddenly cross the line and become partisan and nasty, I recommend this same book.
Great literature examines the abuse of power; as English and History teachers we can explore texts from the Greeks and Shakespeare—invariably tragedies—that focus on leaders. But for all who wish to focus on the rest of us and our role as citizens, I recommend one short novel. George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
It is certainly not fear. In chapter 7, his courage—or maybe his naiveté—allows Boxer to
Benjamin, the donkey, the second type of “citizen” to study, represents a more dangerous flaw.
.… About the Rebellion and its results, he would express no opinion. When asked whether he was not happier now that Jones was gone, he would say only “Donkeys live a long time….” (ch.3)
… Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty. So far as he knew, he said, there was nothing worth reading. (ch. 3)
… Benjamin, as usual, said that he refused to meddle in such matters…. (ch. 8)
Detached, even mocking. As when the enemy prepares to blow up the animals’ windmill:
… Benjamin was watching the movements of the men intently … Slowly, and with an air of almost amusement, Benjamin nodded his long muzzle.
“I thought so,” he said. “Do you not see what they are doing?” (ch. 8)
Clearly, he is not blind. But Orwell’s cautionary tale asks us what Benjamin does with his understanding.
… None of the animals could form any idea as to what this meant, except old Benjamin, who nodded his muzzle with a knowing air, and seemed to understand, but would say nothing. (ch. 8)
If I were teaching Animal Farm now, our class would examine the quote, above, from Margaret Atwood—a power point I used with my 8th graders. I would ask what Animal Farm might be saying about a citizen of this type—cynical, and silent. And what it tells us that he speaks up only when it is too late.
… The animals were … astonished to see Benjamin come galloping from the direction of the farm buildings, braying at the top of his voice. It was the first time they had ever seen Benjamin excited—indeed the first time that anyone had seen him gallop. “Quick, quick!” he shouted. “Come at once! They’re taking Boxer away!” (ch. 9)
The animals—who love Boxer—come running. The old horse—working with his last ounce of strength—had fallen. The others do not see what Benjamin does. After all, he can read.
“Fools! Fools!” shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. “Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?” … he read: “Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughter and Glue Boiler.” (ch. 9)
Only then do the animals act, crying “Get out, Boxer, get out!”
Only then does Boxer himself understand he is not being taken to the veterinarian for care. He struggles in vain to kick his way out. Too late….
Who now, we must ask, is the greatest fool?
Readers, our students, reach the final pages of this fable … aghast that it ends like this. How is it possible, we would ask our class, that whatever the Leader pronounces, no matter how absurd— “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”—can stand, unchallenged?
After reading, no end of questions to discuss: What, finally, is Orwell saying about the Boxers and Benjamins of the world? What is a citizen’s responsibility? Especially, perhaps, if we do not live in a totalitarian state like Animal Farm, where fear can take away our voice. Is it our role—even our duty—to keep our eyes open, to use whatever intelligence we have been given, to seek the truth, to question?
Whatever our politics, Animal Farm can inspire terrific class discussions. To be sure, I would recommend it at any time—but especially now, in the fall of 2017.
FOR TEACHERS – Addendum includes handouts and assignments used with my 8th grade English classes.
Animal Farm - Guiding Questions
What is totalitarianism?
How do totalitarian rulers succeed?
What strategies do they use and what kind of atmosphere do they create in order to build and maintain control?
What does Animal Farm have to say about the Russian Revolution?
About many revolutions?
About the use (or abuse) of power?
For a society to be free, what is necessary?
To prevent totalitarian leaders from succeeding, to prevent a society and its government from becoming totalitarian, what should citizens do?
BEYOND THE TEXT
Animal Farm raises a number of other provocative questions:
How can those in power manipulate or control people’s thinking?
What role do fear and intimidation play in helping tyrants succeed?
Why do people conform? Why do they fear challenging or protesting against a leader who causes them to suffer?
Which is more important to people – freedom or security?
What role do propaganda and distortions of the truth play in helping tyrants succeed?
Are we all equal?
Is creating equality for all a reasonable and worthy goal?
What responsibility do human beings have to maintain freedom and human rights for all?
What responsibility in a democracy do citizens have to maintain freedom and human rights for all?
What is the role of dissent in maintaining a free society?
Is it up to the government, or up to the people, to ensure that freedom and human rights are upheld?
Are there certain universal human rights all people and all countries should submit to?
What are they? (This can lead to a nice connection to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that students read among their five post WW II essays and speeches in the Core Knowledge curriculum.)
CLOSE READING CASE STUDY: ELLIE STRAND TEACHES ANIMAL FARM
Character Analysis – Animal Farm
Who are they? Why do they act this way?
What is the author saying about such “people”?
Writing between 350 and 500 words on two characters in Animal Farm
Not an essay – these are simply two independent pieces, perhaps 200 words each, examining who this character is, what he believes (does he believe in power? in his leader? in himself? in nothing), how he approaches life (to please myself, please others, or please no one), what human qualities he represents, and what Orwell is saying about this type of leader or citizen.
We have said that in most fables animals are the main characters, but they are used to represent human qualities and flaws. In Aesop’s fables, for example, the fox and the crow, the hare and the tortoise, each represents some aspect of human behavior. Keep in mind that a fable usually criticizes certain human traits, so even those of you who like Boxer and Benjamin, you should be sure to observe and comment on what aspects of their character Orwell might be censuring. You should write about TWO of the following four characters in Animal Farm.
To help you get started, here are some words we have discussed in class (or if we didn’t, that we probably should have discussed in class) in commenting on one or more of these characters. Looking at and perhaps using some of these words might be helpful to you as you plan each paragraph and decide what qualities you will describe.
Truth Lies Manipulation Intimidation
Control Power Tyrant Distorts truth
Domination Compromise Intelligent Unintelligent (stupid)
Cynic Believe Resist Rebel
Slave Brainwashing Blame Responsibility
Surrender Freedom Questions Think
Selfish Unselfish Cruel Obedient
Fear Blind Apathetic Ruthless
1. Did you like the ending of the book? Why or why not? If not, how would you have preferred to have it end, and why?
2. Did you think the ending seemed appropriate, given what we know about Napoleon’s power over the animals, and how most traces or hints of rebellion had largely been removed from the farm? Or did you think a rebellion by the animals against Napoleon would have been the appropriate ending, and if so, why?
3. What is Orwell’s point in having the animals not only behave but even look like humans at the end? What is he trying to say about the Rebellion? What might that be saying about the Russian Revolution that brought an end to the Romanov dynasty and the czars’ rule of several hundred years?
4. Poetic justice is a term you should know and be able to use about the literature you read. It means, reward for virtue and punishment for vice. It is a concept that is found in many books, plays, stories, and movies. Goodness gets rewarded in some fashion, and bad or evil actions or behavior are punished.
In Animal Farm, we see no reward for virtue or any punishment for vice. You could say, the bad guys win! Why does Orwell do this? Why does he leave the reader with the “bad guys” in charge, with little hope for change?
5. In studying fables we said some give advice, and some give a warning. Is Animal Farm
trying to give advice? If so, what kind of advice? To whom? If it is a warning, what is the warning? To whom is the warning being directed?