One of the things I have always tried to do as a teacher is to keep my courses fresh, constantly changing my reading lists and assignments, avoiding teaching out of a file cabinet. It was in this spirit that I decided to teach Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel that presciently conjures up a nightmarish vision of the end game for western industrial society. It seemed to me that in the post 9/11 environment where our government can now check what we’re reading from the public library and where American citizens can be indelicately detained incommunicado at the whim of the government, it might be interesting to reread Bradbury’s book with a group of high school juniors toward the end of having them think about the issue of safety versus freedom in the modern world. I remembered liking the book as a young person. I was not prepared, however, to be blown away by how keenly Bradbury was tuned into trends in our culture when he wrote the novel over fifty years ago. I certainly was not prepared for what the book has to say about the failure of modern education to equip students to fend off the seduction of lives aimed at perpetual happiness, even if that state of mind must be drug induced.
Montag, the novel’s protagonist, is a fireman in a totalitarian world in which the citizenry is so completely self-absorbed so completely detached from their society, most do not even realize their enslavement and find freedom and independence threatening. His job in this world is to burn books, books whose ideas threaten the equanimity of the society, books that might simulate challenging ideas and differences of opinion, books that might disrupt the mindless tedium of a world where few even care when nuclear bombs are exchanged by warring nations. Although once himself content with his existence, there comes a day when Montag is called to a job where a woman immolates her home and herself rather than let Montag and his crew burn her out and take her into custody. What would make her do such a thing he wonders, and he rescues a few of her precious books from the fire.
His curiosity does not go unnoticed, and it isn’t long before he has the undivided attention of his captain, a man named Beatty. There comes a time when Beatty trying to rescue Montag from the dangers of the thoughts he is thinking finds himself answering the young fireman’s question about how their society came to be. Beatty explains that it was not the government that usurped their freedom, but a mass market economy in which the thirst for profits gradually sucked all controversy out of books and magazines. It was a system of education that turned out more "...runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers and imaginative creators..., a system in which the word intellectual became a swear. The education system took as its mission to be making everyone alike, "everyone made equal." He goes on, "...Then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. In this new world, the fireman becomes the "custodian of our peace of mind," burning the books and the people who raise disquieting questions.
The parallels to our modern schools that are less and less focused on real academic accomplishment and are more and more focused on the osmotic building of self-esteem and college resumes are simply stunning. If Bradbury is right, however, we are not only robbing our students of learning per se, we robbing our society of a bulwark of our freedom, an enlightened citizenry.
If you are looking for summer reading, help yourself make better sense of the world we’re living in. Pick up a copy of Fahrenheit 451.
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