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Death of the Individual: Huxley, Shakespeare, and our Brave New World

Many of my friends and colleagues were disturbed recently by a video about our investment in public education. The speaker claimed that we would invest more in public education if we changed our thinking about children. Her argument was that we do not invest in public education because we have a “private” notion of children. We have a false notion that they belong only to their parents and not to the community as a whole. If you have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you have already heard echoes of the oft-quoted refrain from that futuristic world, “After all, everybody belongs to everybody.”

In Huxley’s vision of the future, there are no families. The mere mention of parents, particularly of mothers, induces shudders of horror and even nausea in the listeners. Here, in the efficient and happy world of the future, babies are created on assembly lines in factories. Worship of God has been replaced with worship of Henry Ford. Babies are bred only for utility, to feed the constant need for producers and consumers.

How unlike the mysterious and wondrous union of two unique individuals who form a family and nurture more unique individuals! Part of the thrill of both parenting and teaching is that I have no idea who these children will become. Consider the process to be like that of Michelangelo and his statues. If you haven’t seen his unfinished statues, they appear like full-fledged, unique individuals wrestling themselves out of their stone prisons. As Christian parents and educators, we are like the sculptors. The vision of the final unique human belongs to the Lord, but we are privileged to come alongside him for a season, pick up the chisel, and chip away at the rough edges until the beautiful individual can burst forth.

As we have seen, Huxley’s first step toward eradicating individuals is to eliminate families. Only asexual reproduction will do. We would like exact copies please. Isn’t it interesting (as any high school student can tell you) that biology reveals that only the simplest organisms reproduce in this way? At first glance, the idea of widespread asexual reproduction seems ridiculous to us. We would certainly never go that far. Yet, the thinking behind this practice is intimately tied to many contemporary theories which eliminate the hierarchy of Creation. We can have no more the reassurance that man is the pinnacle of Creation. No more of man as the “paragon of animals.”

And yet, deep down, we still know there is a hierarchy. Twice, I have spent an entire semester allowing students a few minutes each week to refine their definition of man. Last year, my students drafted this definition: “man is a rational animal composed of body, mind, and soul who uses language to communicate.” Keen observation of the amazing faculty of language alone will help us to reclaim our status as the “paragon of animals.” We can never find this wisdom, though, unless we go slowly and think deeply.

In our society, the value of the individual is on the decline. Everywhere, our society cries out to create uniform standards and molds for our children—from standardized testing to the Common Core Standards. We may not be as far down the path as the characters in Huxley’s novel, but we seem to be on our way.

In Brave New World, every aspect of society cries out against the individual. The children spend their sleeping hours listening to hypnotic suggestions: “sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth.” As fantastic as this suggestion seems, it is becoming oddly prophetic. We have confused the repetition of information with truth. This is all the more reason to train our children in logic and in rhetoric. Even a rudimentary introduction to Aristotelian definition would prevent them from conflating repeated facts with Truth.

The first assault against the formation of individuals is the destruction of families, but the prescribed methods don’t end there. One of the cardinal sins in this futuristic world is to fail to consume. So, the important task for the controllers is to eliminate reading as a pastime (“You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books.”) Even further, it is important to eliminate solitude. No one must ever have a quiet moment in which to contemplate even a small idea.

I have taught a poetry class to high school juniors for the last three years. It is fascinating and disturbing to see how much this aversion to solitude and stillness has pervaded our society. One of the exercises asks students to spend 30 minutes to an hour contemplating and recording the particular characteristics of a leaf or flower or any other thing they can find on a nature walk. This exercise bewilders them. Another exercise asks them to sit perfectly still for thirty minutes and record each sound they hear. Most students report that they had trouble sticking with this task for even five minutes. So often, even homeschool students have such full schedules that they cannot think.

The whirl of activity is antithetical to contemplation and the lack of contemplation is antithetical to developing a right relationship with God. Busyness stunts the soul. Do you hear the echoes of Wordsworth “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/ little we see in nature that is ours?”

At this point in the class, I have been known to ask a few questions. “Can you think of any Scriptures that admonish you to be still? What is the connection between being still and knowing God? Who is the most famous poet in Scripture? Where did he compose these poems? What was he doing?” I fear that we would scorn to have a child who spent all day in a field watching sheep and writing poetry.

It is no accident, then, that Shakespeare is the true hero of Huxley’s drama. He presents the only form of escape from the controlled future. Huxley presents the savage, the only true individual in the novel, with all the possibilities of individuals with their triumphs and failures, with their virtues and their flaws. (The same is true of Michael D. O’Brien’s novel Eclipse of the Sun in which the keepers of the humane, Christian tradition are the despised and rejected, even the weird.)

Re-reading Huxley will make use all consider how we spend the time we have with our children and our students. Can we go slowly and think deeply? Can we cultivate and cherish every precious, weird individual?

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