Walk into any high school in America, and there is a high probability that you will find some portion of the student body reading 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451. Talk to middle school students, and chances are they are familiar with The Giver or The Hunger Games.
What do these novels have in common besides being omnipresent in English curricula nationwide? They are examples of dystopian literature, a genre in which authors explore themes of societal collapse and totalitarianism. Such novels often involve stories of governments or ruling elites using propaganda, restrictive laws, and state-sanctioned violence to subjugate their populations.
The ubiquity of this literature in schools provides social studies teachers an opportunity to creatively teach one of the most important documents in U.S. history: the Bill of Rights. When James Madison wrote what would eventually become the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, he attempted to prevent the very future that modern dystopian authors fear.
The core of these novels remains frightfully relevant to our world. Staggering numbers of people live without the basic freedoms that many Americans take for granted. Connecting the freedoms lost in dystopian novels with the freedoms secured by the U.S. Bill of Rights offers an opportunity for teachers to link social studies and language arts.
If social studies teachers do not have time to assign a full novel, they may connect with an English teacher already using such a text in class.
Many dystopian novels feature the abolition or abridgment of freedoms that the American founders specifically sought to preserve for future generations. Begin with an explanation of the Bill of Rights, its origin, and its importance to American society. Present students with the Bill of Rights in a visual manner, either on the board or in a handout. After reviewing the amendments, ask the students to identify certain freedoms that characters they are studying have been denied. Questions can steer students in the right direction.
- Can the characters speak or protest freely?
- Is there a free press in this imagined world?
- If they are accused of a crime, does the law afford the characters due process?
- Do the characters have the right to privacy?
Depending on the objectives of the class, students may work in groups or present textual evidence with page numbers and proper citations in order to support their answers.
After they have identified the freedoms lost, students should couple these examples with the real-life amendments in the Bill of Rights. Graphic organizers in which students either fill in the amendment or an example of political suppression in the novel might help learners better visualize the relationships. The fictional tyranny may parallel the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. For example, in Fahrenheit 451, the authority’s destruction of reading materials curbs speech and press freedoms like those guaranteed by the First Amendment. Brave New World and 1984 also provide examples of First Amendment infringement as the media are co-opted by the government and personal speech is censored.
The comparisons should not be limited only to the First Amendment; the nightmarish punishments that await “thought criminals” in 1984 and the televised blood sports of The Hunger Games are examples of torture as a means of control and coercion, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Mass surveillance and a lack of privacy rights are recurrent themes in dystopian fiction and provide a springboard for discussion of the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure protections. The Fifth Amendment, often cited in pop culture, is connected to fictional characters’ imprisonment and punishment with little evidence and no due process.
From Fiction to Reality
Connecting the fictional instances of political repression with real-life cases—current or historical events—helps students better understand the protections of the Bill of Rights. Students can investigate appropriate news sources or draw upon their prior knowledge in history to make these parallels. Weave current events and research activities into the class, focusing on topics such as these:
- Censorship, propaganda, and unjust imprisonments in dictatorial regimes.
- Prohibitions on dissent and protest such as at Tiananmen Square in China.
- Threats against press freedom around the world.
- The controversy surrounding the Patriot Act and enhanced interrogation in the United States.
The Bill of Rights Foundation offers up-to-date links to current events related to the Bill of Rights. Newspapers are also a good source for materials related to fundamental freedoms. CNN 10 features short news summaries that could be used to explore possible connections to the Bill of Rights.
The fictitious travails of Winston Smith and Katniss Everdeen might seem out of place in a lesson concerning U.S. government, but the philosophy of the Founding Fathers speaks directly to the plight of those characters. The authors of the Constitution recognized the dangerous consequences of unchecked government, and they sought to ensure that Americans’ only experience with totalitarianism was in the pages of a good book.