I’ll remember the summer of 2016 as the summer of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the culmination of anti-establishment politics. I’ll also remember it as the summer I taught “Brave New World” to a class full of Chinese undergraduates. The selection was not by accident.
In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic, the world has been purged of harmful anti-social concepts such as family, religion, and literature. Babies are designed according to a rigid class system and raised collectively by the all-powerful World State. “Alphas” lead, “Betas” follow, “Gammas” perform semi-skilled tasks, and “Deltas” and “Epsilons” do the rest.
Teaching at an elite Shanghai university, I see the effects of elitism on a daily basis. My Chinese students speak fluent English, can afford the latest iPhone, and, based on our alumni statistics, are more likely than not to earn a graduate degree at an American university. We, in the rigid class hierarchy of “Brave New World,” are an entire institution of “Alphas.”
China scores 80 out of 100 on social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, which means the country is “a society that believes hierarchy should be respected and inequalities amongst people are acceptable.” Compared with the United States’ score of 40 and the United Kingdom’s score of 35, China is a place where people shouldn’t have “aspirations beyond their rank.”
Bernie Sanders campaigned on a platform of financial inequality. Brexiters argued that the EU is a force of social injustice. Donald Trump rose to power disparaging party elites, calling globalization a “rigged economy.” People at the bottom of the hierarchy are angry.
“Community, Identity, Stability.” This is the World State’s motto in “Brave New World.”
I begin the last lecture of the semester by writing “Stability” in large letters on the blackboard. “Let’s brainstorm possible threats to stability.” Students answer with popular themes from the book: “Freedom.” “Change.” “Science.”
I write “Freedom” and “Change” in large letters opposite “Stability.” “If stability is a zero, and freedom and change are a 10, where on this scale is ‘Brave New World’?” The class decides on a two. “Now, where would we put America?” A student raises his hand. “Seven or eight,” he says. “And where would we put China?”
The class, as it usually does when presented with this kind of question, observes a moment of silence. A young man finally speaks up, “Probably a five.” I pause for a moment. “And how would we move that line if we wanted to?”
The class is silent. But this time it’s the charged, awkward silence of overstepping the boundary of acceptable political discourse. The students admire the tops of their desks, the floor, the ceiling.
I backtrack and draw a horizontal line on the blackboard. “Is it better to have a completely stable society followed by violent change?” I swing the line erratically up and down. “Or is it better to have a relatively stable society that changes little by little, like this?” The second line slopes gently upward.
The class quickly agrees on the second line. At this point in the discussion, I perform one of my usual Socratic tricks — I make the lecture personal.
At the end of “Brave New World,” the two unhappiest characters, Bernard and Helmholtz, are removed from normal society. We learn not only are thoughtful, inquisitive types exiled to a distant island, but that seeing through the totalitarian system is a qualification for future leadership. The Resident World Controller of Western Europe, one of the executives who rules society, reveals that he was once offered a choice — to leave for the island and conduct scientific research, or to stay behind and preserve the status quo.
I call on a quiet student in the back row: “Would you rather go to the island and pursue truth, or would you rather stay behind and rule a society focused on material pleasure?”
He remains silent, so I help him out. “If you watch an NBA game, what do the ads want you to do? Do they want you to pursue truth?” The class laughs.
I worry about my students. I worry that they’re not creative enough, not entrepreneurial enough, that they’re not aggressive enough for careers in the 21st century. I worry that when they study abroad they’ll only talk to their Chinese friends. I worry that the time spent studying for the national college entrance examination, the gaokao, has robbed them of critical interpersonal skills. But most of all, I worry about perpetuating a privileged class of educational elites.
Many of my students will go on to earn graduate degrees in America. They’ll study math or economics or engineering. Some of them — like the two seniors in my class who’ve already secured jobs in Silicon Valley — will leave for the island, perhaps never to return.
But some of them will choose to stay. They’ll lead companies or become professors or take up jobs in government. And when they do, 20 or 30 years from now, I hope they’ll remember the lessons of “Brave New World.”
Stability is important. But so is the ability to change.
(Header image: Students are pictured during Fudan University’s graduation ceremony, Shanghai, June 29, 2012. Yang Shenlai/Sixth Tone)