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.