Prophesies and Portents

Back in January I wrote a blog about Huxley’s classic Brave New World, which has always been one of my favorite books. I taught it for years and have always found mountains of issues worthy of serious thought and discussion. In 1985 Neil Postman wrote another provocative book titled Amusing Ourselves To Death in which he promises to discuss the question whether Huxley might have been right in his predictions about what was to become of Western culture. Bear in mind that Huxley wrote his novel in the 1930s and he was English.

In his “Foreword” Postman contrasts Huxley’s remarkable book with Orwell’s equally remarkable book 1984. I shall largely ignore what Postman said about Orwell, but will summarize what he said about Huxley since it is most apt. In America, especially, we love to boast about our freedoms, which we would insist are many. Is it possible that this freedom is an illusion? In Huxley’s view, Postman tells us, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” Anyone who claims it is possible to remain free despite their inability to think is delusional. Further, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” Huxley feared that we would be so inundated with information that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalence of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

Moreover, “As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited [which few people read] the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.'” In 1984, Postman added, “people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we loved would ruin us.”

I used Brave New World numerous times in ethics classes and in honors seminars. Discussions were generally lively and the students seemed genuinely engaged for the most part. In one of my last years of teaching I assigned it to a required Freshman class involving well over a hundred students. We met once a week and spent a month on the book. We had a biologist. a psychologist, a philosopher, and a professor of English literature talk about the book from the perspective of their own discipline. We discovered later that many of the students could not read the book — could not comprehend it. Many could not comprehend the cheaters (Cliff’s Notes) they bought that were supposed to explain the complex text (!) to those who apparently cannot read simple prose. Many did not even bother to buy the book. But when the course evaluations came in at the end of the Semester, a number of students, more than I care to recall, asked in unison: “What does this have to do with me?” Indeed.

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23 thoughts on “Prophesies and Portents

  1. Oh my gosh! Are you serious? They didn’t get it? I just read this one, and will post on it soon. I think it is a great book for illustrating and starting a conversation on ethics. I like what you did with inviting professors from different disciplines to talk about it. What a neat idea! And if it makes you feel any better about students, I read it because one of my students urged me to. He was a nontraditional student and already mature and thoughtful, so those sorts of students and people do still exist! 🙂

    • Oh yes, they are out there, thank goodness. But their numbers are shrinking. Non-traditional students are always above the rest: they can draw on so much more experience of the world. Thanks for the comment, Emily.

  2. Maybe this explains why SAT scores are down. Great post about two great, thought provoking books. It is interesting that both may be right. We have some who want to squelch reading and learning about science. Then, we all are guilty of letting technology do for us what we can do for ourselves. An easy test for us all – how many of the pre-programmed phone numbers in your cell phone do you remember? The “Brave New World” theme reminds me of the famous Star Trek episode with Capt. Pike and the large headed beings. To remind everyone, these beings became such a slave to technology to permit them to think more, that they did not know how to fix the machines they built when they broke. Today is an interesting day to read the post, as yesterday, the State of California signed into law that driver-less cars would be permitted. I feel Rod Serling peeking over my shoulder.

  3. But doesn’t BNW bring up the question of what does the human race do once all the fossil fuel and all the iron ore and all the rare earths are used up and we are forced to live on only the energy that the sun and the center of the earth generates. Will this not be the end of the the notion of “economic growth” and it’s attendant capitalism? Will not such an occurence force the stabilization of human populations? I think the arts will occupy the time of most people and some form of “soma” bliss out the rest. “Shrooms” anyone?

    • Huxley doesn’t address the issue of the used up fossil fuels. His world is filled with helicopters and other types of engines wasting fuels. He didn’t think about that, apparently!

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  4. Ok, let throw out a curve ball. BNW, 1984, and Animal Farm were always a trio of my favorites of futuristic books. Of the three, I see AF as the most telling of where we are headed. The farmers (moderates and bi-partisianship) have already been removed, and the pigs have taken over and are moving into the farmhouse. The rest of the farm animals are already working more for less, and the donkeys still “believe” but are exhausted from working so hard just to survive, sadly they are still buying into the pigs speeches that they, too will benefit from the largess moving the pigs way.

    Hugh, Great piece, as usual

    • Thanks. I agree that Animal Farm is an astonishing book. But I keep seeing Huxley’s predictions coming true all around me! Thanks for the comment!

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  5. I read both books, but remember 1984 better. I might need to dust off Brave New World and see what it would have to teach me today. But I see where you are going. At at time when we have access to all the knowledge in the world through the internet, people are more interested in angry birds than solving the problems of the world.

  6. Reblogged this on TheBrabbleRabble and commented:
    I need to reread these books! I know it’s not very sophisticated, but the kid’s movie WALL E touched on some of these themes. It’s set in the future where everything is done by computers and robots. The humans are amorphous blobs that ride around on hovering scooters, their muscles to weak to hold up the weight of their own bodies. They spend their time eating, drinking, staring at computer screens, never interacting face-to-face with each other. That may well be our pitiful future.

    We are so preoccupied with our little gadgets that we walk into public fountains, manholes, and moving buses. Sitting around the dinner table, each person is busy on the phone or the iPad, not talking to each other. Kids and parents text each other from different parts of the same house. Back in the day, while I was in school, kids tried to write their book reports based on the summary on the back cover or by watching the movie. They didn’t see the POINT of actually reading the book. We are self-absorbed, but not self-aware. It’s sad. Maybe that is why so many people are intrigued with the zombie apocalypse, survivalism, etc. We subconsciously crave connection with each other and with nature. We suffer from an impersonal existence where it’s harder and harder to find meaning and purpose. We want to unplug and engage, but think it can only happen if everything falls apart, because we are also addicted to technology and instant gratification.

    Great post from Hugh Curtler!

  7. Well, Hugh, I don’t share this sort of thing with everyone, but the song itself has had me laughing so hard that I had to share with old (male!) classmates!

  8. Pingback: The Mess of Brave New World « The Bookshelf of Emily J.

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