How Beauteous Mankind Isn't: Reflections on Today's Brave New World

Ashley Thorne

Last summer’s revelations by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency (NSA) “targets the communications of everyone” have brought to the forefront fears that we may now be living in a surveillance state similar to the one George Orwell rendered in his dark dystopia 1984. But while, in light of this, many commenters have compared the NSA to Big Brother, there is perhaps a better metaphor for our present state in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Orwell was a student of Huxley’s, and Brave New World and 1984 are often juxtaposed as the two leading works of fiction on technology and society by twentieth century British authors. Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that “In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized.” This is because, Postman wrote, “In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.”

I recently read Brave New World for the first time, not only because I have been working my way through some of the landmarks of the wide terrain of dystopian novels, but also from an interest in looking back at a classic to see what it has to say about the present day. The National Association of Scholars has opened a new series, “Revisiting the Classics,” in which we are inviting our members and friends to read and reflect on a book that has stood the test of time, and to consider how it bears on contemporary ideas. One goal for this series is to inspire colleges and universities to choose better books for their freshman reading programs, and to show how classic books can be relevant to college students today.

Huxley’s dystopia is a portrait of the mindlessness that results from brainwashing and distraction by constant amusement and self-gratification. It is a world of pleasure free of pain. It is a world where people are robots.

Huxley took the title, of course, from Miranda’s speech in The Tempest, where she gushes in admiration, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in’t!”  Huxley’s titles often mined other English writers for his titles (Tennyson for After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Shakespeare again for Time Must Have a Stop, Marlowe for Antic Hay, Milton for Eyeless in Gaza). In most cases, the originals continue to have more life than Huxley’s cynical, world-weary appropriations, but Brave New World clearly lives on. 

Brave New World has been adapted into a couple of TV movies but never as a theatrical film, which seems right, as the book on its own doesn’t make for a very good movie. Its plot is not especially rich and the development of its main characters is disappointing. This may help to explain why Huxley, who moved to Hollywood in 1937 and earned screen credit for the 1940 MGM production of Pride and Prejudice, didn’t succeed as a script writer. What makes Brave New World so resonant through the years is that as time has gone on, many of his predictions—made decades before the rise of the internet, smart phones, and Netflix on demand—have begun to come true. (In 1958, twenty-six years after the release of the book, Huxley published an addendum, Brave New World Revisited, in which he evaluated the extent to which his forecasts had been fulfilled, but here I prefer to focus on comparisons of the original book to the present day).


Birth and Population Control

Today, as in Brave New World, fun is seen as a reward we all deserve. Entertainment is everywhere and forms the basis of much of our common cultural dialogue. Casual sex is the norm, committed relationships are on the decline, and birth control and abortion are intensely practiced.

The women in Brave New World wear “Malthusian belts” carrying contraceptives, named for Thomas Malthus, the economist who is famous for advocating human population control on account of his calculations that humans would crowd one another out and suffer starvation. In Brave New World, the contraceptives are there to prevent viviparous reproduction, not to limit population growth, as “hatchery” labs compete with one another to produce the most identical twins from a single ovum and churn out huge batches of bottle-decanted babies.

Today, though birth control is practiced primarily for personal reasons, there is a growing effort on the part of environmentalists to link being “green” with having fewer children. The Center for Biological Diversity hands out condoms that say, for instance, “Wear with care, save the polar bear.” The book Earthscore, an “environmental audit” which has been an assigned textbook for a California State University course on environmental literacy, has a question, “I plan to have ___ children.” An impact point scale follows:

0 = 0

1 = 10

2 = 50

3 = 500

4 or more = 5,000

Above the question is an explanation: “Zero population growth can be achieved with two children per couple.” Increased homosexuality has also been proposed as a means of limiting the birth rate. Writing in the Huffington Post, G. Roger Denson advocated that just as procreation has been the historical purpose of heterosexuality, anti-procreation should be seen as the purpose of homosexuality: “With the natural world on the brink of demise largely because of overpopulation, unrestrained homosexuality, as one of a variety of ethical and democratic measures available to us today, offers perhaps the most natural option to be enjoined.” A significant motivation for the population control movement is a view of nature as more important than humans.

Citizens of the World State

In Huxley’s vision of the future, “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Today, everyone belongs mainly to the earth, not only as keepers of the natural environment but also as “citizens of the world.” The idea of being a “citizen of the world” rather than one of a particular nation is an old notion with a place in literature for the darker characters—such as Melville’s beguiling con man aboard the steamboat Fidèle who claims to live by “the principle of a true citizen of the world,” and the enigmatic Count of Monte Cristo on his quest for revenge, who, “being of no country, asking no protection of any government, acknowledging no man as my brother,” says he is a “cosmopolite.”

Fairleigh Dickenson University in Madison, New Jersey, adopted a new mission in 2000, beginning with the sentence, “Fairleigh Dickinson University is a center of academic excellence dedicated to the preparation of world citizens through global education.”

Six years later, FDU president J. Michael Adams delivered an address to a gathering of university presidents in Seoul, South Korea, in which he said:

A world citizen is someone who understands the interconnected nature of our planet. A world citizen can retain pride as a Korean, a Thai, an American or a Chinese, while simultaneously adding a level of attachment that recognizes that we are all in this together.

At the National Association of Scholars, we have been following the global citizenship trend in American higher education. Peter Wood wrote in “Teaching Collegians to Be World Citizens” that “Being a citizen of the world sounds like an escape from everything narrow and provincial, which gives it magnetic appeal to college students eager to shed their suburban and hometown identities. Many American colleges and universities have tapped into this longing.”

Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has established an Institute for Global Citizenship. Scholar Martha Nussbaum argues that we need a new kind of education to better train citizens of the world, and Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp agrees, saying in an interview (“Global Citizens All”), “As stewards and citizens of the world, we are also linked by environmental and political challenges that require us to work together to create a sustainable and just world.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, global citizenship is in fact highly individualistic. If you belong everywhere, then you belong nowhere in particular. A person who has no loyalties will have no allegiance and will be a law unto himself.

Huxley has given us a vision of a World State in which there are no marriages, no families, and apparently no nations, and where, again, “everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Hypnopaedia

There are no colleges or universities in Brave New World. Education is conducted solely through hypnopaedia, repetition of recorded propaganda echoed during the sleep of all children and teenagers. Does this picture match the forecast of those who see a post-higher-education-bubble future in which traditional universities have disappeared? Probably not, as teaching in Brave New World is not self-directed (as would be the case if MOOCs and other forms of alternative education were to replace bricks-and-mortar colleges) but World-State-directed.

The repetition of slogans and catchphrases, however, is reminiscent of modern American higher education, where politically correct, usually undefined buzzwords such as “critical thinking,” “inclusive excellence,” “consent,” “hegemony,” “privilege,” “diversity,” “allies,” “safe space,” “social justice,” and “sustainability” are scattered with glee around campus in the curriculum and beyond. Such words are meant to activate a knowing self-righteousness among faculty members and students who see themselves as being “on the right side of history.” Ah yes, we fight against heteronormativity and all privileged oppressors who perpetuate systems of hegemony. Such talk repeated among academics becomes orthodoxy when unchallenged.

There are books in the World State, but they are so bland as to be unpalatable. One is The Chemical and Bacteriological Conditioning of the Embryo. Practical Instructions for Beta Embryo-Store Workers. Today K-12 education is being retooled by the Common Core State Standards to include more “informational texts” instead of fiction. Perhaps in the future Practical Instructions will comprise the majority of our literature.

One character, a “Savage” named John who was born in an uncivilized part of the world, finds a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. An outcast among the savages, and later a freak among the civilized, the ideas he encounters in the verses of Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet come to be his guiding ideals—ones no one else shares on either side of the world.

John reads about Hamlet’s mother and uncle, “Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty,” and finally understands why he hates his own mother’s lovers. He reads Othello and finds in it a deeper story of interracial love and jealousy than the base, sex-filled 4-D movie he had seen in London. He reads Romeo and Juliet and praises the beauty of the woman he adores for her supposed “pure and vestal modesty,” not for the easy sex he could have with her.

But writing by Shakespeare is deemed positively indecent in the World State. When John asks why it is prohibited, one of the World Controllers shrugs, “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”

That indifference to “old things” is a pretty good picture of the contemporary university. Heather Mac Donald reported earlier this year about the English department at the University of California at Los Angeles cutting back its course requirements for English majors in the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. Last summer I participated in a Huffington Post Live discussion about whether there is any value to modern college students in reading the classics. One of my interlocutors, an English professor at NYU, argued that students need to read books only by authors who represent their readers in terms of sex and race. In other words, a book is junk unless the author belongs to the right identity groups.

In my ongoing study of common reading programs for college freshmen, I have found that colleges ignore older books and go straight for popular books by living authors (often books published in the last three years). They feel a need to promote recent, “relevant” books on popular current issues, fearing that an earlier work will have no appeal for students. Evidently today’s college students haven’t any use for old things.

A Real Dystopian Future?

If I were to write my own dystopia based on the direction I see society going, it would be in many ways a match with Huxley’s, though with some differences. People would practice birth control both to avoid having children and to feel as though they are doing something for the earth. Patriotism would be gone because there would be no countries to feel proud of; individuals would find their identity in being citizens of the world. Lessons would come from new and popular ideas, and old lessons, especially found in literature, would be obsolete.

Speculating about the future, for those of us who work in higher education reform, inevitably comes back to the future of the university. Right now the most important question facing higher education is whether it will continue to exist in its current form. Many who study the academy forecast that the bricks-and-mortar college will be replaced by alternatives such as online credentialing and “uncollege” which require immense initiative and discipline. While I see that families are beginning to awaken to the problem of too much tuition for too little education, I think that the higher education bubble will not burst any time soon. The idea that traditional college is the pathway to success (and the way to overcome barriers of poverty, a broken family, etc.) is too deeply ingrained for it to dissolve into thin air. Instead, students in the dystopia I envision would go into more and more debt for more and more credentials. The New York Times in 2010 reported that young people are taking much longer to reach milestones of adulthood such as purchasing a home and having children, in large part because they are saddled with too much debt. Stunted financially, they often live with their parents, tarrying in adolescence. Huxley also compares his characters to children—incapable of self-control, independence, and serious thought.

Permanent childhood—and spoiled childhood at that—is the sad destiny predicted in Brave New World. When we get everything we want and have no occasion for sacrifice, we can, as Postman warned, amuse ourselves to death:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

* * *

What will it take to pull us back from the brink? The National Association of Scholars is catalyzing a movement of people who see things differently. We see the importance of history, of time-tested books, of beauty, of the pursuit of truth, of freedom to dissent, of virtue, of human life, of civil debate, and of loyalty to one’s country. We think that higher education should reflect the importance of these things and should uphold its responsibility to pass down to the next generation the legacy of civilization. I see the NAS and others like us as those who keep alive what is best in society. Can we keep our world from turning into the World State?


Image: "Early Paperback Copy of BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley" by Chris Goldberg // CC BY-SA

  • Share

Most Commented

September 16, 2019

Slavery Did Not Make America Rich

'King Cotton' isn't King

September 18, 2019

Most Read

January 03, 2011

May 26, 2010