Sorry for the long blogging break – my colleagues and I have been involved in the XQ Super School Project’s competition to rethink high school. I’m energized and inspired by the proposal we submitted this week.
Today “Truth in Media” wrapped up with a “finale” instead of a final exam. (For more on the idea of an “epic finale” instead of a traditional exam, see Anthony Crider’s article in the Chronicle.)
Our “finale” used George Orwell’s dystopian regime from 1984 for inspiration. Orwell uses that novel in part to exemplify the ways language structures thought. In the book’s appendix, which outlines the principles of the fictional totalitarian government’s new language, he writes of Big Brother’s concerted efforts to remake the English language:
It is intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.
I told the students to come to class as members of this dystopian regime’s “Eleventh Edition Committee” charged with writing the Newspeak dictionary. What words would they eliminate or invent? What grammatical constructions would they amend or proscribe? What lessons and texts from this semester support their ideas?
I distributed a “script” and had the class vote on a chairperson to lead the committee meeting. We vigorously chanted for Big Brother, yelling the government’s language-defying motto, “War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!”
We pretended our white board was a telescreen surveilling our every move. Bren took on the role of chairperson with a little too much enthusiasm, threatening to vaporize her classmates for “oldthink” and heresy. My script launched us into a heated discussion drawing on literature, philosophy and current events.
Students suggested eliminating abstract nouns like “freedom,” restricting all pronoun forms to only two (“us” and “them”), and eliminating the active voice to render all writing more vague and indirect. They referred to Ehrenreich and Pollan’s ability to inspire empathy for the powerless (minimum wage workers and industrial farm animals, respectively), and debated ways that language could offset or undermine those subversive feelings. In essence, they took all the lessons we’ve learned about powerful, moving writing and turned them on their head.
I’m not sure whether to be proud or afraid, but it certainly was fun to watch.
In the last ten minutes of class, students wrote about the “most compelling idea”, backing up their assertions with references to the semester’s work. Shailee’s response stands out as particularly insightful in her linking this event to the work of this course:
I think the idea of paternalism was very compelling, as well as how it ties into vague writing and the government. I like this because I think the process of debunking this vague paternalism is the point of our class – Truth in Media. Ehrenreich peels back the corporate veil that obscures the lives of lower-class workers from their upper class peers. Pollen reveals the truth that the food industry works so hard to hide. In both cases, modern industries use vague language and jargon to feed us half-truths, and we grow too comfortable and trusting towards these industries. The Elements of Journalism shows us how to defend ourselves from blindly following this feeling. – Shailee, 8th grade.
Here’s the script in case anyone would like to try this:
Dystopian Script for Finale