science fiction & dissent — Harrison Bergeron & Brave New World

This fall I’m teaching an elective English course to juniors and seniors called Science Fiction & Dissent. While there are so many things I could write about related to the course, there have been two activities so far where students have produced work that is too witty, fun, clever, and insightful not to share.

The first short story we read in the course was Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. In an effort to make everyone equally, the government issues handicaps to people who are gifted at something. Beautiful people wear clown noses; dancers have weights attached to their arms and legs; intelligent people have an earpiece that blasts loud music every so often so they can’t think clearly. After reading the story, students got into small groups to discuss the story and answer a set of response questions. I assigned each student a “handicap.” This ranged from having to loudly state “I love English!” every 60 seconds to having to read out loud with lots of passion and inflection. Two of my favorite “handicaps” were having to rhyme every answer and having to use alliteration. It was very difficult for students to work together in groups! The purpose of the activity was to get students to think about whether equality and sameness are the same thing, and to think more critically about the consequences of the handicaps in the story. It was so much fun!

A and M (A wrote rhyming answers and M used alliteration) gave me permission to post some of their responses online.

1) In “Harrison Bergeron” certain people are “handicapped,” and they have to carry around heavy weights and have loud noises blasted into their ears. Why do you think the government does this?

A: The government does this so everyone will have equal bliss. No one’s better than anyone else, nobody will ever get jealous. (Slur the last word.)

M: The great government gave these grave and grueling handicaps so everyone, everywhere would be equally endowed with “ehhh” talents.

3) Why was the killing of Harrison Bergeron so significant? Did Harrison have to die for the sake of society?

A: He had to die for people like me, so people like me can be set free, so I can be unique in society.

M: Harrison’s death distracted his dumb dad (and mom) from the dire disaster Diana [Moon Gompers] dealt to society. His woeful wound wound up working for the woman (Diana)  as the masses moved past their momentary monarchy led by Harrison.

4) At the end of the story, George says to Hazel, “Forget sad things.” To which she replies, “I always do.” Why is this dialogue, or conversation, so important to the story?

A: It shows how everyone there is a drone and nobody can act or think on their own. They’re all clones just as smart as stones, all full of bologn…a. (Balone…E).

M: Dad’s dumb, mom’s a moron. The dialogue’s significance is sullied by the spouses’ stupidity.

5) Do you feel that Harrison Bergeron acted heroically by going against the rules of the society? Why or why not?

A: He made the path for future generations, so great art and culture can come from each nation.

M: Harrison’s a hero for healing his hurt homeland hindered by the harmful, heinous government. He was heroic for acting against the angry abomination, aka the government.

(Don’t worry, we also had a more serious discussion about the story and these questions. Especially since at least one student had the handicap, “You think and write like a third grader.” Her answers were soooo funny too!)

———

The second activity I wanted to post on here is an assignment I had students do right after we finished reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I had each student create a Top 10 list about the book, in the style of David Letterman. They could pick any topic for their list. The examples I gave were the Top 10 Most Unconvincing Plot Twists and… (I can’t think of the second example I gave.)

Students’ lists included: Top 10 Stupidest Lines, Top 10 Realistic Brave New World Concepts, Top 10 Reasons Why Bernard had Alcohol in his Surrogate, Top 10 Sexiest Moments, etc. I think that my favorite, however, was Top 10 Worst Similes in Brave New World.

These top 10 lists were hilarious–we laughed so much–and are great because you could apply them to any novel your class reads!


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