Memo to Big Brother

I inadvertently unleashed the dark side in my sophomore honors section this week. The course is a seminar focused on society, order and freedom. In it we read and discuss the usual suspects: Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx, but also other authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Edith Wharton, George Orwell and Frederick Douglass.

I wrote a standard ho-hum essay prompt that the students could write on if they wished, but I also came up up with some creative alternatives. Option B was to develop syllabi for three courses at Socrates University, an institution whose mission is to forever unfit people for intellectual slavery. If students wrote on this prompt, they had to select authors we read this semester and dream up the kind of learning experience that, say, a Professor Wollstonecraft or a Professor Thoreau might propose for the Soc U. curriculum. Then there was option C. That's where the trouble started:

Memo to Big Brother

(Final Paper Option C)

You are a loyal member of the Ingsoc inner party in Oceania. It is your job to police the spread of dangerous ideas and develop new methods to combat thought crime. This means you have access to many heretical texts (in other words, all of the books we have read in this seminar). Your task is to compose a memo to Big Brother that provides a detailed summary (carefully cited of course) of the three most dangerous authors and their ideas. You will need to explain why these ideas are a danger to the Party’s monopoly on power. In addition, you must describe what methods the Party will need to use to counter these ideas? (Indoctrination of the young, intimidation, enforced ignorance, destruction of history, etc.). Why will these modes effectively suppress any desire for freedom and individuality?

Your memo should accurately state the ideas, their dangers, and how the Party should respond. It should be five pages in length. Remember, Big Brother is watching, and he does not tolerate failure.

So last Tuesday we discussed some strategies for writing on this prompt. What struck me was the fiendish glee the students began to take in designing Room 101s for the various authors. At one point our discussion grew so dark that one of the students gave a shiver and confessed, "This is really starting to creep me out." Another brought up Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (we'd watched a bit of it in class while reading Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents). And I couldn't help thinking of that, too. I had written an essay prompt that asked students to think like torturers, and--just as Freud or Zimbardo might have predicted--they started to get into it. Indeed, O'Brien, the torturer in 1984, says the future of mankind can be thought of as a boot endlessly smashing into a human face. What I hadn't reckoned on was just much fun it can be to slip on that boot.

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