Monday, January 12, 2015

Companion texts

We'll be starting to read Animal Farm in just a few days. I think the overarching question I want to push students to examine is "What is the citizen's responsibility to society – and why?"

See, I've taught it before, and the students often come to the conclusion that the pigs just should have been nicer. I don't know if it's because they're that naive, or because they're slacking off and not bothering to look below the surface. Because, honestly, at the end of the novel, the pigs have it pretty good, at least in comparison to the rest of the animals.

The pigs aren't going to be any nicer unless the other animals make them be nicer. But by the end of the story, the pigs not only have the dogs as enforcers, they have the guns and other weapons as well. It would be very difficult for the other animals to take a stand against the pigs. The key is that the other animals didn't make the most of their opportunity to be involved in the new government after the Rebellion. They weren't lazy – they worked hard – but they were willing to go along with what someone else wanted. If you do that often enough, you're going to get stepped on, and that's exactly what happened.

For potential companion texts, I've used "Initiation" and "The Fan Club" as a pair, to encourage students to examine the desire to belong. I also have access to "The Lottery" and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," but I'm less happy with those. They seem to oversimplify the situation. Both of them look at established societies, sort of as a "oh my isn't this terrible," but they don't look at how those societies and their practices developed. For example, you can definitely make the case that a capitalist society is predicated upon the suffering of those at the bottom for the well-being of those at the top. In "Omelas," we are just flat-out told that the suffering one is innocent. How do we know this? Only because the narrator says so. However, in our society (for example) we make other excuses for why those at the bottom are there. They aren't willing to work hard. They're selfish. They're criminals. We tell ourselves that our suffering ones are not innocent.

Trying to change society is a HUGE task that really can't be completely accomplished by one person, Hunger Games notwithstanding. So I want to get students to think about what it would take to change society, to make the world better, and what they can do to help make it happen.

Any suggestions for other possible texts to work along with Animal Farm?


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