Dystopia revisited

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A while back and in another school, I taught a sixth form General Studies course that was based on the idea of nightmare worlds; central to it were dystopian novels.  Unusually for such a course, the students seemed to have read most of the books on offer and when the course stopped after its one term’s duration, they seemed keen for more.  1984 (1948) and Brave New World (1932) were there of course, but it was Zamyatin’s We (1924), which arguably laid the imaginative foundation for 1984, that seemed to attract a good deal of the discussion.  Shortly after its publication, I taught Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which gripped its teenage readers with its nightmarish world and was an intriguing text to be talking with teenagers about in the ’80s.  Over the holidays I returned to Attwood with her very readable The Heart Goes Last, as well as finding Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror as my annual box set.

More’s Utopia (1516), the book that coined the adjectives, is now 500 years old; each Spring, our Block 5s who are taking the much admired Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) become caught up in creating their ideal worlds; so the idea of Utopia is very much a feature of our shared cultural life.  So, it is salutary – scary actually – to stop and think about how many dystopian echoes there are in the way that the world seems right now. Early Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits (2011) especially, where the game show and unintended consequences of an increasingly digitally based world combine to create a garish living nightmare, now seems spookily prescient.

Specific to the USA, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is thought-provoking.  I’m told we should be reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

But it is the masterly portrayal of totalitarian thought control in Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be capturing people’s interest.  I suspect that there will also be many more teachers who are encouraging their students to carry their reading of Orwell on into the essays, in particular Politics and the English Language with its memorable concluding thought:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

California Re-visited

Having spent a year in California on a teaching exchange in 1988/9, it was intriguing to go back: instead of being parents of a one year old we were parents of two university age children and one working for an American company. All three of our children have ended up having some university time abroad – the first two because they are linguists (so, France, Italy, Columbia and Mozambique) and our third, Lara, because she is at Edinburgh and has managed to secure her third year abroad, continuing to study history but at University of California, San Diego (UCSD); so, with the main attraction being visiting Lara and seeing a little of her San Diego life and the secondary one of re-visiting a state where we had spent a very intriguing and enjoyable year, we set off. Overused words like vibrant and innovative don’t really capture California, especially the coastal belt from San Francisco to San Diego. The raw data that compare California to countries capture some of it; the fact that since we were last there a whole clutch of Californian based companies have become world brand names also says much. The experience of visiting UCSD and also University of California, Los Angeles was also powerful: these places mirror what is going on economically in terms of ambition and world reach. Take a look at the Times Higher Education 2012/3 rankings – not only will you see that the California Institute of Technology is ranked first in the world but that there are 6 other Californian universities in the top 40 in the world: Stanford (2), Berkeley (9), UCLA (13), UC Santa Barbara (35) and UC San Diego (38). Not only are these west coast universities starting to push their east coast rivals back (Harvard and Yale are at 2 and 11 respectively), but they are supplanting their old world rivals – the UK also has 6 in the top 40 – Oxford (2), Cambridge (7), Imperial (8), UCL (17), Edinburgh (32) and LSE (39). My evidence base is entirely anecdotal – based on a tour and subsequent conversations with OB and former head boy Omer Sami (2nd year at UCLA) and a tour and various chats with Lara and some of her friends. Omer is taking maximum advantage of the breadth and flexibility offered by the American system: although he will major in Psychology his minor, which is in Film, may come to be in the most influential part of his degree in terms of a future career. He is going to be taking advantage of the ability to pick up additional courses, in his case with languages and will be adding to his current facility with French and Spanish through spending next year in Brazil and Denmark, thus giving himself Portuguese and Danish as well.  The scope for work placements alongside your degree looks to me to be unparalleled both at UCLA and at UCSD. Turning to Lara and her fellow Edinburgh undergraduates who are also at UCSD my sample of 3 – History, English & Philosophy and Bio-technology respectively – all rated the quality of the teaching they are having at UCSD higher than what they were receiving at Edinburgh. They are also more aware of the number of their professors who are making waves on the world academic stage. Plenty of food for thought – more on UK vs US university choices later this term.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.