Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club #33 – Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”

BLOG #35, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #33
LOIS LOWRY’S THE GIVER
THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE
August 27, 2014

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In the case of this book, I put the cart before the horse. Connie and I were invited to see an exclusive advanced screening of the upcoming movie, The Giver at the Carefree Cinema in Colorado Springs on the evening of July 31, 2014.

Neither of us had read the book. All we knew was that the book was first published in 1993, and became a Newberry Award winner in 1994. The book has been required reading in a host of schools–especially middle schools–across the country for many years now. Colleges too.

We went into the movie blind since it had not yet been released; not even movie reviews were available yet. We did know, however, that the movie had a stellar cast, including Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, Katie Holmes, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Alexander Skarsgard.

We did know it would be a futuristic movie.

Our hostess was the genial Jane Terry, who explained why each of us had been forbidden to bring any recording devices into the theater. Nor were we to divulge the contents of the film to anyone prior to the movie’s release, or review it before the release date.

Then, the movie rolled. In somber black and white. It took us some time to understand just what it was that we were watching. And what might be significant about the upcoming twelfth birthdays of a group of good friends. At which time, each would be assigned a life profession, hopefully compatible with each individual’s primary interests.

The first jar had to do with the age: they most certainly didn’t look like twelve-year-olds, but rather eighteen-year-old high school graduates! What gives here? But the story-line was so mesmerizing that most of us did willing-suspension-of-disbelief and watched the story-line unroll.

It didn’t take me long to discover we were watching a dystopia, a subject area I was already very familiar with, having written my masters in English thesis at Sacramento State University on utopian and dystopian books. My wife, not having been herself immersed in the genre earlier on, was forced to fly blind into the movie.

Nor did it take me long to realize how eerily prophetic the story line was: too much appeared to either be already reality in contemporary society or be approaching it. Then the story grew darker. But it was still a long time before either the young protagonists or the audience were aware that something awful was happening.

In the movie discussion afterwards, it was noted that the author, back in 1993, had predicted it might become reality in fifty years from then. I declared that it might very well become reality in twenty from now.

But later, I purchased a copy of the book and read it through. I was fascinated. When the movie was released I eagerly read the reviews to see what their take on the movie might be.

REVIEWS

Raymond Flynn (August 15 Wall Street Journal) titled his review “‘The Giver’ and the ‘Totalitarian Instinct.’” Included in his insightful commentary are passages such as this: “As the lights came up after the screening…, my thoughts were on Poland and communism, but soon turned to the broader subject of totalitarian regimes robbing individuals of their God-given rights. So often, one of the first jobs of the totalitarian is to declare that God is dead and that government is the final authority on truth and justice–we see it now in North Korea…. In the movie, we are in a world where all human misery has been eliminated. There is no rage, no war, no wealth and no poverty. But at a cost. There is also no music, no art, no literature, no beauty. And no memory. Just to be safe, all memories are the possession of a lone individual.”

In the August 16-17 Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Wolfe’s review of Jeff Bridges’ role quotes Bridges as saying, “I think it’s an impulse for human beings to want to suffer less, and we’re kind of addicted to comfort at all costs–at least I am. And of course comfort has a price. So the film is asking…what’s the true cost of our comfort, and what are we willing to pay?”

Lisa Kennedy, in the August 15 Denver Post labels the film “a gentle, chilling dystopian primer,” and notes that both recent films Divergent and The Hunger Games owe much to Lois Lowry’s earlier book. The movie “is a class act, the kind of respectable rendering of a literary source we’ve come to expect from Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media, the indie force behind ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ ‘Holes,’ and other engaging family fare.”

MY OWN TAKE

My mind is still at sea with Lois Lowry’s unique approach to the utopian and dystopian genres. George Orwell paints his Stalinist world in bleak gray. Both Freedom and Family are dirty words. Love is an obscenity. Aldous Huxley’s world is closer to ours: Give the world all the sex, sensations, and pleasure it wants–and few will even care that World Controllers make all the really significant decisions, what’s left is meaningless, which is whatever sensation, pleasure, high, or pill one wishes to turn to. Free sex is so ubiquitous it no longer has any meaning, nor do any of the standard building blocks to a great society: God, Love, Marriage, Fidelity, Commitment, Honor, Patriotism, Empathy, Faith, Integrity, Courage, Dependability, Longing, etc.

Lowry’s world is also gray, and is just as totalitarian as Orwell’s and Huxley’s, even though it appears to be benign. All the highs and lows of life have been eliminated. Sex does not even exist, no small thanks to injections and pills. The power of making individual choices is not even an option, not even in careers. Marriage is a travesty, as is “family,” but is instead a mockery of the real thing: catbird egg children (not your own), and celibate “parents” who are not permitted to really love anyone. Puberty is not even permitted to happen. Children happen somewhere off-stage via women who somehow churn out babies from no one is permitted to know where or how. The only learning is standardized meaningless pap. Big Brother–or in Meryl Streep’s case, Big Sister, is omnipresent. Even thought-crime is punishable by death. Unwanted babies disappear. Same with unwanted retirees. All is placid–yet terrifying. All human knowledge is housed in one room, guarded by one person only. No one else must have any access to it–ever.

Nevertheless, I personally predict that society is drifting into Lowry’s orbit: In America, spiritual faith–unless it is of the East or mystical–is routinely ridiculed and disparaged. Marriage (commitment for life) is being reduced to live-in relationships, one-night stands, and meaningless “hook-ups.” Children all too often are merely frisbees tossed between one household to another, with no real home to call their own. Porn of all kind (a la Huxley) is so addictive that real marital commitment cannot even compete. Virtual reality is replacing real reality. The very concept of faithfulness is mocked. The gay lifestyle is all too often replacing the heterosexual; result: androgynous individuals without clearly defined sexual differences. Why spend years studying and learning when you can escape into substance abuse and virtual reality? Boys especially, lacking traditional fatherhood role-models, are bailing out of education at an ever earlier age. College and university degrees are becoming worthless: substituting amorphous masses of meaningless observations for the traditional building blocks of western culture: history, biography, geography; great art, great music, great literature. More and more, one can earn doctorates in areas such as history without taking any history classes. Patriotism is continually ridiculed and downgraded, and is no longer taught in most of our schools. Our democratic way of life is being rapidly subverted by corporations and big money determining election results rather than people-driven elections. Since people are discouraged from reading, elections are now being decided by vicious below-the-belt attack ads that result in more and more cynicism, most terrifying–even in children and teenagers. Big Government is taking over more and more of the decisions parents used to make. Big Governments the world over are discouraging all rural life in favor of megacities that can be more easily manipulated and coerced.

When you add all this up, who is to stop totalitarian systems such as Lowry’s from obliterating what is left of freedom in our world?

That is why everyone–young or old–ought to read Lowry’s book and see the movie…so that course-corrections can be implemented before it is too late. Especially should tweens and teens read the book and see the movie.

The book can be found everywhere. The movie version was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014; the original (1993) was published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. Find a copy and read it.

WHAT ARE WE TEACHING OUR KIDS?

BLOG #15, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHAT ARE WE TEACHING OUR KIDS?
April 10, 2013

Recently, in an organization I regularly attend, one of our members, with an uncharacteristically grave expression on his face, silenced us by a statement followed by a question.

In essence, here is what he said: “Our daughter came home from school yesterday afternoon deeply disturbed, confused, and bordering on tears.”

By this time, there was total silence in the room.

After pausing a moment, he continued, “Our daughter, her voice quivering, said, “Daddy, our teacher today told us that we live in a wicked nation, that we committed genocide against the Indian people—is that true?”

Continuing, he told us that he tried to explain to her the complex story of the last four-hundred years. Then he asked her what else the teacher had been saying about America. And what next came out of his little girl’s mouth stunned him and his wife, for it was clear that the teacher had been undermining all the positive things in our history generations have died to protect. He continued, saying, “We’re appalled! And are wondering whether or not to pull her out of school now—or wait until later. . . . Quite candidly, we’re at sea. We need counsel. What do you think we ought to do?”

For the rest of our meeting, little else was talked about. Reason being that, even those of us older than he, were so flabbergasted by the dilemma he and his wife faced that I’m afraid we weren’t much help.

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Not long afterwards my attention was caught by a Wall Street Journal headline: “The Golf Shot Heard Round the World,” a column written by David Feith (issue of April 6-7).

The story began with a 2010 golf game during which philanthropist Thomas Klingenstein got acquainted with Barry Mills, the president of the highly respected liberal arts Bowdoin College in Maine. During their far-ranging discussion, the subject of “diversity” came up. In a later article for the Claremont Review of Books, Klingenstein wrote, “I explained my disapproval of ‘diversity’ as it has generally been implemented on college campuses: too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference,” coupled with “not enough celebration of our common American identity.”

For this, wrote Mr. Klingenstein, Bowdoin’s president insinuated he was a racist, and the debate heated up from that point on. It so happened that Mr. Klingenstein was now curious enough about what was being taught at Bowdoin to commission, at his own expense, researchers from the National Association of Scholars to dig deeply into the matter. So deep that only now, a year and a half and hundreds of pages of documentation later, the report is out. The data was distilled from speeches by Bowdoin presidents and deans, formal statements of the college’s principles, official faculty reports and notes of faculty meetings, academic course lists and syllabi, books and articles by professors, the archive of the Bowdoin Orient newspaper, and more. “They analyzed the school’s history back to its founding in 1794, focusing on the past 45 years—during which, they argued, Bowdoin’s character changed dramatically for the worse.”

This report, according to David Feith, “demonstrates how Bowdoin has become an intellectual monoculture dedicated above all to identity politics.”

“The school’s ideological pillars would likely be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to American higher education lately. There’s the obsession with race, class, gender and sexuality as the essential forces of history and markers of political identity. There’s the dedication to ‘sustainability,’ or saving the planet from its imminent destruction by the forces of capitalism. And there are the paeans to ‘global citizenship,’ or loving all countries except one’s own.”

“The Klingenstein report also offers specifics: Bowdoin ‘has no curricular requirements that center on the American founding or the history of the nation.’ Even history majors aren’t required to take a single course in American history. In the History Department, no course is devoted to American political, military, diplomatic, or intellectual history—the only ones available are organized around some aspect of race, class, gender or sexuality.

“One of the few requirements is that Bowdoin students take a year long freshman seminar. Some of the 37 seminars offered this year: ‘Affirmative Action and U.S. Society,’ ‘Fictions of Freedom,” ‘Racism,’ ‘Queer Gardens (which examine the works of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces,’), sexual life of Colonialism,’ and ‘Modern Western Prostitutes.’

“Regarding Bowdoin professors, the report estimates that ‘four or five out of approximately 182 full-time faculty members might be described as politically conservative. In the 2012 election cycle, 100% of faculty donations went to President Obama.”

* * *

There’s more. But, considering that Bowdoin represents the norm rather than the exception to the rule in higher education today, I can offer little consolation to the distraught member of my service club.

What I can’t get over is being able to graduate from a prestigious liberal arts college, earning a degree in history, without taking so much as one course in American history!

IN CONCLUSION

But, let’s return to the beginning of this blog, and the heartbreaking question that father posed to us—how should I have answered him? How would you have answered him?