Many people were introduced to author George Orwell because as students they were required to read “Animal Farm” or “1984,” the 68-year-old dystopian novel that is now experiencing something of a revival. Sales spiked after the inauguration of President Trump, and it remains a fixture on required reading lists in many English classes.
Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, referenced Orwell’s theme of how the truth is subverted in totalitarian regimes when she wrote the following in January:
Anyone — citizen or journalist — who is surprised by false claims from the new inhabitant of the Oval Office hasn’t been paying attention. That was reinforced when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told “Meet the Press” Sunday that Spicer had been providing “alternative facts” to what the media had reported, making it clear we’ve gone full Orwell.
Although Orwell is best known for his novels about the dangers of totalitarianism and how societies slide into such a system, he wrote much more, including poetry, literary criticism and polemic journalism. Many of his essays rank with the best of his work, according to literary critics, and one of them shows him to have been prophetic in education, specifically high-stakes tests.
In an autobiographical essay titled “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Orwell tells stories about his own experiences when he was 8 to 13 years old, from 1911 to 1916, and a student St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Suxxex, England. The essay was first published in 1952 but was thought to have been written years earlier, although there is no consensus about exactly when.
He writes about his disdain for using a single test to determine a student’s future, and how some subjects get ignored when other subjects are deemed more important for testing purposes. Sound familiar? That has been one of the most destructive results of the standardized test-centric era of school reform that began with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and continued with President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
Here’s the relevant passage, in which Orwell also writes about “the greatest outrage of all … the teaching of history. You can read the entire essay here:
For my first two or three years I went through the ordinary educational mill: then, soon after I had stated Greek (one started Latin at eight, Greek at ten), I moved into the scholarship class, which was taught, so far as classics went, largely by Sambo himself. Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas. And with what learning! This business of making a gifted boy’s career depend on a competitive examination, taken when he is only twelve or thirteen is an evil thing at best, but there do appear to be preparatory schools which send scholars to Eton, Winchester, etc. without teaching them to see everything in terms of marks. At St Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else. Subjects which lacked examination-value, such as geography, were almost completely neglected, mathematics was also neglected if you were a ‘classical’, science was not taught in any form — indeed it was so despised that even an interest in natural history was discouraged — and even the books you were encouraged to read in your spare time were chosen with one eye on the ‘English paper’. Latin and Greek, the main scholarship subjects, were what counted, but even these were deliberately taught in a flashy, unsound way. We never, for example, read right through even a single book of a Greek or Latin author: we merely read short passages which were picked out because they were the kind of thing likely to be set as an ‘unseen translation’. During the last year or so before we went up for our scholarships, most of our time was spent in simply working our way through the scholarship papers of previous years. Sambo had sheaves of these in his possession, from every one of the major public schools. But the greatest outrage of all was the teaching of history.
There was in those days a piece of nonsense called the Harrow History Prize, an annual competition for which many preparatory schools entered. It was a tradition for St Cyprian’s to win it every year, as well we might, for we had mugged up every paper that had been set since the competition started, and the supply of possible questions was not inexhaustible. They were the kind of stupid question that is answered by rapping out a name of quotation. Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching ran on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of ‘A black Negress was my aunt: there’s her house behind the barn’ are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?) Flip, who ‘took’ the higher forms in history, revelled in this kind of thing. I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming.
‘Massacre of St Bartholomew!’
‘Death of Aurangzeeb!’
‘Treaty of Utrecht!’
‘Boston Tea Party!’
‘Oo, Mum, please, Mum — ’
‘Please, Mum, please Mum! Let me tell him, Mum!’
‘Field of the Cloth of Gold!’
And so on.