This October Brings an 'Orwellian' Nationwide Reading Event

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In George Orwell's novel 1984 (Signet), one of Big Brother's most famous slogans is "War is Peace." And while Orwell's ominous, futuristic story was published 55 years ago, the "Rhetoricians for Peace," an independent activist group, believe that such Orwellian doublespeak has taken on special relevance these days. In the spring of 2003, the group held its first face-to-face meeting at the Conference for College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in New York City just as the first bombs began to rain down on Iraq, and that initial discussion sowed the seeds for what is now a nationwide reading and discussion of the George Orwell classic -- to be held in October 2004. Sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), "1984+20" aims to promote awareness, discussion, and debate about the key roles of language in politics and culture.

Professor Charles Bazerman, chair, Department of Education, Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California in Santa Barbara, explained that the Rhetoricians group formed out of Internet discussions on a "rhetoricians list serve." He describes the Rhetoricians for Peace as an activist group along the lines of Poets for Peace, and the members are primarily teachers of writing and speech.

When the Rhetoricians first met at that 2003 CCCC, "one of our main focuses was to encourage analysis in both classroom and community of the use of media that increased divisiveness and fear rather than advancing dialogue, reason, and honest problem-solving," Bazerman told BTW via e-mail.

When the group gathered again in 2004, a member "mentioned what we needed was for everyone to read and discuss … 1984 -- not only because of the immediate relevance to our current political situation, but because of the much broader manipulation of information of the last several decades," Bazerman continued. "Immediately everyone in the room saw the potential of the idea, and within a few minutes we developed the plan for the 1984+20 project…. We put together a resolution … requesting the NCTE to sponsor the project." NCTE agreed.

The organizers of the 1984+20 project argued that, with today's media climate, the term "Orwellian" has "experienced a recent resurgence as public officials, corporations, media, and interest groups grow bolder in their use of manipulative language as a tool for sculpting public opinion." They hope that educators and students in high schools, colleges, and universities, and citizens in libraries, community organizations, and book discussion groups nationwide will read the book and discuss its "prophetic nature and what it might teach" about life in the contemporary U.S.

"We are encouraging people to teach the book and get their colleagues to do so," Bazerman explained. "We also are encouraging people to use 1984 for the library reading groups, city read projects, etcetera. We have heard of some plans to create marathon readings of the book in public places."

NCTE is encouraging educators, administrators, librarians, students, media, community organizations, nonprofit groups, publishers, writers, artists, activists, bookstores, and others to join NCTE in its effort. NCTE will provide support in the way of background resources, classroom lessons, and online forums. For more information and to find out how you can get involved, contact Lyndsey Tate at (800) 369-6283, ext. 3630, or at [email protected]. --David Grogan