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The future of ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is already here

By Douglas Marolla 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

This year is different. I’m not sure what the cause is, and I’ve spoken about it a lot, but I don’t think it’s COVID. To be honest, I’m tired of “COVID” being the excuse for generic sloth.  

For the first time in my career, I have students failing at high rates. This past marking period, 61% of my students failed freshman English for marking period 3. That is unheard of. Why is this happening? 

One of the obvious differences between the students of yesteryear and today is the level of curiosity. In years past I used to take a day off periodically and get a haircut. Every year, at least one student would notice and comment usually by December that “Every time you are out, you come back with a haircut.” This year, students are oblivious to even the most obvious things. 

 As many of you know, my room is decorated and colorful and filled with art posters and original works. I have quotes above on one side of the room. None of it is seen. I occasionally point out the student work that they themselves have done in various parts of the room. Multiple students looked at it for the first time when I pointed it out. Literally everything that is hung up on the walls is ignored. 

The object, of course, that is commanding everyone’s attention is the phone. It is the one thing that is constantly stared at, paid attention to, analyzed and studied. When I’m reading the story of the day, or teaching class, or explaining things, or going over conspiracies, or basically doing anything, students are looking at their cell phones. I walk around and look at what students are looking at, and with few exceptions they’re staring at short videos – mostly on TikTok – of young people doing mindless activities. 

I know how I sound. Maybe I am that guy, too. Perhaps I am an old man out of touch. But I can’t help but think that these young people are being trained to only think in short bursts. We just finished the short story “Harrison Bergeron,” and the parallels were so obvious that I expected two or three reasonably intelligent or aware students to see the light and comment on how the “Bergeron” handicaps were in play today. But that didn’t happen. 

Every single other year it happened, but not this one. 

In “Harrison Bergeron,” the government has intellectually neutered everybody’s intelligence by placing headphones or earbuds (or AirPods) in people’s ears and dinging them every 30 seconds with a loud noise so they can’t focus. The reason is because, in the book’s alternate reality, the government forces everyone to be completely equal. This means if someone is considered too smart, then the constant dinging will level the playing field for others. Although the book is a satire, it seems like it has now happened in real life. Kurt Vonnegut was able to see the future. I just don’t know if he understood how right he’d be. I also don’t understand if he had thought that people would distract themselves into oblivion by listening to and watching 15 to 30 second videos for hours at a time.  

We watched the movie “2081,” a short (25 min) film depicting the short story “Harrison Bergeron.” During the film, students were distracted by nonsensical short blip garbage on their phones. One of my so-called honors students handed in the assignment – a review of the film – by copying and pasting a short blurb about the full-length Hollywood feature movie “Harrison Bergeron” which was made in 1996. 

This was an honors student. She copied and pasted a review of the wrong movie. 

The sad irony is so obvious that I’m not sure that I’m thinking clearly. I must be missing something. I have around 60 students this year, a small number, and I don’t think I can recommend but maybe one or two for 10th grade Honors English. 

Finally, this brings me to the future dystopia that people like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury were able to predict. As I mentioned, in “Harrison Bergeron” the government forces people to wear handicaps and have their intelligence and physical prowess stifled. George Bergeron, Harrison’s father, who is a broken man, rejects his wife’s suggestion that he take off his handicaps while sitting at home on the couch trying to relax. George refuses to do so, lamenting that if he did, “Everyone else would do it and then be back in the dark ages when everyone could compete.” At the end of “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury’s main character has joined a small group of men who remember old books and transcribe them and repeat them to themselves so that the stories in the books stay alive.  

One of the quotes on the wall that students don’t notice is a quote by Ray Bradbury: “You don’t have to burn books to get people to destroy culture, you just have to get people to stop reading them.” 

Vonnegut was right. Bradbury was right. Unfortunately, we have done it to ourselves. The young people I work with are, sadly, ill-prepared, unmotivated, ahistorical, and have no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. The new knowledge gap is gigantic. Any young person with any level of reasonable intelligence, the ability to show up on time, and do good work will be extremely successful. The yawning divide between those capable young people and the young people in my classroom is unbelievable. Unfortunately, as it looks now, my students will get obliterated in the workplace and the competition of life. 

I don’t know how to fix it and I don’t know if it can be fixed.

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Douglas Marolla

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