Teaching My Students About Covid Propaganda Through George Orwell's Animal Farm
My principal has now threatened to discontinue my contract
My seventh grade class is currently reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I have taught this novel for five years, and with great success. Students always enjoy this book, especially since it allows for deeper conversations around historical events and how they connect to the present. Additionally, reading Orwell’s work leads to great conversations around language and how language can be manipulated by those in positions of authority. A recent lesson discussed propaganda, a major theme of the novel. I asked students to think critically about the text, and how the message Orwell conveys through his fiction may help us better understand how powerful people and institutions use propagandistic language to manipulate others.
The students read excerpts from the novel, analyzing what characters said “between the lines.” Here is the excerpt from the end of chapter three that prompted the initial class conversation: “Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contains substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We Pigs are brainworkers.”
I asked the students to connect the line, said by Squealer, the propagandist of the novel, “this has been proved by Science” to the lingering mantra, often uttered by Dr. Fauci and media pundits, “follow the science.” The question I posed concerned appeals to authority - like Fauci - and to the science, which the media has used as a way to shut down debate around masks and the Covid vaccines.
I explained that different scientists and experts in relevant fields do not always agree on all policy recommendations. I mentioned, as an example, that students do not wear masks in much of Europe or throughout large swaths of the United States, because not all scientists and experts believe that masking students and teachers provides any discernible benefit or outweighs potential risks; however, both those who mandate masks and those who do not mandate masks claim to adhere to the science.
I then used Fauci as an example, since he and former Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, advised against community masking at the beginning of the pandemic, before coming out in support of universal masking, essentially, for everyone when in public. What changed in the science, I inquired, in the short amount of time between their statements against and then in favor of masking? And, how would the public even know what to believe, since they’re not trained in assessing scientific evidence or literature?
One of my students became upset - a student of an emergency room doctor who works for the health network that advises my school on Covid protocols, by the way - when I told the class that evidence does not support ongoing mask requirements in school. This particular student seemed emotionally connected to wearing a mask, and did not like the idea that some people do not agree with mask mandates.
I told this upset student, and the entire class, that early in the pandemic when there were many unknowns around the virus, some policy makers used the precautionary principle when deciding to mask students; however, now, with evidence suggesting that masking students and teachers made little to no difference on the trajectory of the virus, I find mandating them irrational.
But what really upset this particular student, I came to find out later, was when I made a connection to the evolving semantics around the vaccines to another passage from Animal Farm. I focused on one of the seven commandments that the pigs, the intellectual authorities on the farm, wrote early in the novel but then later changed: “No pigs shall sleep in a bed” became “no pigs shall sleep in a bed, with sheets.”
Many of the animals on the farm did not remember the initial commandment. I asked my students to consider the shifting language around the vaccine, from preventing infection, to preventing hospitalization, to preventing “severe disease” and death. I figured this functioned as a sound real-world connection to the text. I reminded my students that many people have forgotten the vaccines were, at first, marketed as preventative inoculations, that Fauci, Rochelle Walensky, and President Biden all said publicly that those who took the vaccine would not get infected before those “rare” breakthrough cases became ubiquitous. Many Americans, though, excuse these authorities for their obvious misinformation. The animals on the farm responded similarly when the commandments arbitrarily changed in order to serve the interests of those in charge, the pigs.
The relevance of this concerned how manipulating language led to an ideology around the Covid injections, which allowed for policies that do not make rational sense, but that politicians have implemented anyway, like discriminatory vaccine passports. When asked, I explained that many people either do not need the vaccine because they're naturally immune or they simply do not want it, and I believe people should not be barred from engaging in civil society based on their medical status. I didn’t go into the other relevant examples of Orwellian language manipulation, such as the fact that the CDC literally changed the definition of the word vaccine so these gene-based products that do not confer immunity would fit under the sacred label of vaccine. This, though, could have really drove the lesson home, and could have fostered an interesting discussion among some very precocious young people. Unfortunately, my discontented student really did not want these analogies expounded upon. I refrained from further elucidation at this juncture.
I always try to make sure kids are comfortable with conversations in class. Never at any point in class did I challenge the health decisions that parents make for their children. This upset seventh-grader, incidentally, decided early in class to inform his peers that he is vaccinated and boosted before remarking that his classmates should also get vaccinated and boosted. I told him that not all parent’s would agree with him.
Regardless, a couple of the students in the class seemed quite pleased to hear a different perspective - especially those unvaccinated students who have felt ostracized by ongoing Covid policies - and to have had the opportunity to critically assess our present moment through Orwell’s novel. One of my unvaccinated, Covid recovered and naturally immune students told the class that his parents planned on taking him to a sporting event in the city, but because he had to show proof of vaccination, he couldn’t go. I used this as an example of how the vaccine passports have discriminated against people and created a society where only some have special privileges. I asked the class: “Does it seem right that if we took a class field trip to one of several major American cities, that some of your classmates would be unable to enter museums and restaurants because their parents decided that taking a particular pharmaceutical product was not in their child’s best interest?”
This lesson in empathy went well. None of the students, even the student who thought everyone should take the vaccine, thought it appropriate to discriminate against people because of their vaccine status.
Ultimately, my goal was to have an engaging conversation around the thematic aspects of Animal Farm by connecting it to real-world events in order to deepen the student’s understanding of the content, which I believe successfully occurred with this lesson.
Last Friday I had parent-teacher conferences. The mother of my unvaccinated student who couldn’t go to the sporting event in the city thanked me for teaching the Animal Farm propaganda lesson; another parent told me I am the only teacher to teach critical thinking and to let the students know that they’re not at risk from Covid. She complained that my school keeps the kids in fear.
I did not receive one single negative review from any parent; a couple parents said I’m their kid’s favorite teacher. Some said I set the bar high for their kids, and for the first time their children do more than just read aloud and fill out worksheets.
It was a good day.
But at the very end of the day, I was told by my principal that the ER doctor parent from the health network which advises my school, and whose triple-vaccinated and mask-obsessed child got upset during my class, demanded a meeting with the administration present. My principal then told me that I cannot mention Covid in any manner whatsoever to my students, even if it relates to a lesson or presents a teaching opportunity. Two days later, he sent me this follow up email to our conversation:
My school, by the way, grounds its identity on its “progressive” values; teachers are encouraged to tie social justice causes to the curriculum. It is normal for teachers, for example, to discuss contemporary issues of race and gender with students, and the school’s mission statement declares a commitment to having “courageous conversations.”
But I have been told I cannot teach critical thinking skills in relation to the most significant ongoing societal issue of our time even as it directly corresponds to themes in the curriculum. How utterly uncourageous!
Indeed, my school does not want my students to analyze their Covid protocols through a critical lens, even as nearly all the surrounding school districts, as well as the local Catholic schools, go mask optional and drop other policies of Covid containment.
As you have read above, I have already been told I won’t receive a contract for next year unless I comply with their demands to not bring up Covid or Covid protocols again in any fashion, even if a parent asks me about policy. This demand comes just days after I sent the Head of School a letter requesting that our school lift the unscientific, harmful mask mandate. So I believe that also has something to do with their threats.
All in all, my school wants to silence me. They want me to shut up, wear the damn mask, and not question the masking of children. And they don’t want the children to question the cloth that still covers their faces either. Most certainly, they do not want critically engaged students with the capacity to use analytical thinking skills that would allow them to challenge institutional orthodoxy.
Fortunately, though, I believe I’ve allowed my students to see the world through more than just one perspective, and to question the ways authority figures use language in the service of Covid propaganda; unfortunately, this lesson may end up costing me my job.