Fahrenheit 451: Four Themes for Today’s Journeys

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Beyond Censorship: Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

by Reg Harris

Four themes

Written more 60 years ago, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is as relevant today as it was in the age of Joseph McCarthy.

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, toward the end of McCarthyism and at the beginning of the escalation of the Cold War. The theme for which the book is most famous is censorship. While censorship is one of the book’s key themes, there are three other themes―entertainment, political correctness and happiness― which are equally important to our students today and which impact their ability find and follow their own journeys in life.

In this article, I’ll explore briefly these four themes as Bradbury presents them in Fahrenheit 451. I’ll also suggest several classroom activities which would tie these themes to our modern society and to your students’ lives.

Theme One: Censorship

Censorship is a key theme in Fahrenheit 451 (F451),  and is, perhaps, the theme for which it is most famous. When we think of censorship, we usually think of a person, group or government that is trying to control what people read. That is not the case in F451. In the world of F451, books are burned because they trigger thought and discontent, two things which are unwelcome in this “happiness oriented” society. In fact, in F451 censorship seems to have originated with the people. According to Captain Beatty,

There you have it, Montag. [Censorship] didn’t come from the Government down. There was
no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation,
and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time.

Apparently, people were unhappy, so the government acted to remove the sources of their unhappiness and to enhance their lives with activities which would prevent them from thinking and, thus, being unhappy.

Censorship in many forms continues to be a part of our lives, though not so blatant or extensive as in F451. Schools across the country are subjected regularly efforts to censor what is read and taught. Media, too, is often censored, sometimes by the same groups which attempt to censor schools, but more often by the corporations that own media outlets or that advertise on them.

Activity 1: For one day, have students compare news from two sources: the most popular commercial outlets (broadcast and print) with independent media (e.g., Democracy Now or Thom Hartman on television or Common Dreams, Breitbart News, Huffington Post or Truthout on-line). Have them explore which stories are given most attention from each source and which stories are covered in one source and not the other. Have them explore why many important stories are simply not covered at all. For example, they might compare the low coverage given to the war in Afghanistan with the flood of coverage on the war during the Vietnam conflict. What did the government and establishment learn from Vietnam that the government in F451 already knew?

Activity 2: In 1983, 50 companies owned 90% of the American Media. Now, six companies― Comcast, News-Corp (Murdock), Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner and CBS―control of 90% of the American media. Discuss, in class or in groups, the impact of so few companies controlling so much of what we see and hear, especially in the area of news. For example, how can/do these companies control the news to distract us from other important issues? To make the theme more relevant to your students, you could discuss large telecommunications companies buying internet companies (e.g., AT&T and Viacom trying to buy Yahoo). How will telecommunications ownership of search engines affect our ability to find information or how will it dictate the kind of information we can find. (This activity could also be done as a research and writing assignment or broken apart as a group assignment.)

In F451, people are conditioned to want censorship so that they don’t have to think.

The censorship we experience now, though more subtle, results from the same motivations explored in F451. For example, Bradbury’s firemen burn books because the ideas in the books offend “minorities.” Note that the word “minorities” in F451 refers to more than just racial or life-style status. It includes just about everyone. Any group of people with a common interest or background is considered a minority, even teachers. When everyone is classified as a minority (and is sensitive to that fact), anyone can easily be offended. In other cases, books are burned because they make people think and, thus, unhappy. As Beatty told Montag, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

Exploring examples of censorship and attempted censorship (current and historical) is another excellent activity for students reading Fahrenheit 451. Here are some ideas you might adapt to your classroom.

— Have students research current incidents of censorship, both direct and indirect. Include efforts by groups to pressure schools and others into removing objectionable materials (e.g., Harry Potter or The Things They Carried). For example, several years ago in our area, a local fundamentalist religious group objected to a liberal religious column being run in a large area newspaper. The newspaper refused to remove the column, so the group mounted a telephone campaign which tied up the newspaper’s phone lines for three days, effectively shutting down their ability to gather news and conduct business. Members of the group would call and hang up immediately when someone answered, making it impossible to trace the calls and stop the harassment. The newspaper eventually had to remove the column to stay in business.

— Have students research the groups or types of individuals most frequently advocating censorship. Have students examine their techniques, their reasons, and any support they get from organizations.

— Have students explore which books and films have been the most frequent targets of censorship. Have them report on why are these books and films most often attacked, who most often attacks them and why they are attacked. For example, fundamentalist religious groups frequently attack Harry Potter books and films for their witchcraft theme.

— Research efforts at censorship in your own community, both in school and in the media. What complaints have teachers, administrators and editors most often encountered? How are these complaints handled?

— Create a collage of a censored book(s) or film(s). Perhaps do the collage in the form of a mandala or a poster, where students explore with symbols and quotes both side of the entire issues.

— Examine censorship in the music industry and the industry’s efforts to self-regulate. Again, look at the most frequently attacked music and why it is attached. Deal fairly with both sides of the issue.

— Examine how books are reviewed and approved in your school district. How do officials decide if books are fair and worthwhile? What process do people follow if they object to a book and wanted it removed from the classroom? What safeguards are in place to prevent a small, vocal group from using censorship to promote its own views within the public schools?

Theme Two: Entertainment

Neil Postman has written that we are “entertaining ourselves to death.” One recurring theme in Fahrenheit 451 is the role of entertainment as a drug or addiction, as a means for individuals to avoid thinking or a technique for the government to keep people from thinking, and thus from being discontent.

Beatty, the fire chief, lectures Montag on this subject at length early in the book. He explains the value of entertainment, including sports: “More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? More cartoons. More books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less.” Later he says,

If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they can win by remembering the words to more popular songs! Cram them full of non-conbustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.

Beatty’s comments suggest several interesting activities:

— Everywhere we go, we see people using their cell phones, laptops or pads for entertainment, whether that entertainment is movies, animation or non-stop communication. Programmers and designers are using “mind-control” techniques to keep people “engaged” (some programmers call it “brain hacking”).  Have students watch the video or read the transcript of Tristan Harris’ interview on 60 Minutes. Then have them discuss how programmers hack into our neural systems to keep us entertained or engaged. What are the dangers (see Larry Rosen’s comments near the end of the 60 Minutes segment). You might ask students if schools should be teaching students how they are being manipulated through their entertainment.

— Have students read some of Postman’s writings (or other critiques on entertainment) and draw parallels between them and Fahrenheit 451. What are Postman’s main concerns or observations? What dangers does he see? Are there examples or statistics to support his observations?

— Beatty suggests that meaningless entertainment can weaken or destroy the mind. Is there evidence of this? Examine research done on the effects of different forms of entertainment on our ability to think, learn and comprehend.

— Related to this, have student explore our current “addiction” to technology. For example, brain research shows that texting can be addictive because it stimulates certain chemicals in our brains. With cell phones now, we can watch movies anywhere at any time or get the latest news from anywhere in the world. How does universal access to entertainment affect us or our culture? How does it, or will it, affect our health (i.e., eye problems, hyperactivity, finger and joint problems, obesity, and brain development).

— Have students look at the importance of entertainment in their own lives or in the lives of their friends (what sorts of entertainment do they enjoy, how often.) Another critical concern is that entertainment is replacing other activities: reading, current events, direct social contact, children playing together or physical activity.

— Look at how entertainment is marketed to us and how marketing techniques affect us: our self image, our view of others and our view of the world.

— Examine the money paid to entertainers (television, film, sports, etc.), both as salaries and for endorsements. Why are they paid so much? Who makes the most? How much money is spent on endorsements? Where does that money come from (for example, how much extra do products cost us because of the endorsement)?

— Research how commercials and advertisements are produced to be both entertaining and convincing. What psychological and coercive techniques are being used (i.e., switching images rapidly or propaganda techniques)?

Theme Three: Political Correctness

One of the key reasons books are banned in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is that books offend minorities, which means any group with a common link of some kind. With the current climate in our country where virtually anything can be considered offensive to someone, the world of Fahrenheit 451 may be more real than we would like to imagine. Here are some ideas for students along the lines of political correctness.

— Research examples of government regulations (or government harassment) of private businesses and individuals for “unfair” labor practices (that is, practices which discriminate against minorities).

— Examine lawsuits filed for discrimination in hiring or promotion to find out what the most common complaints are and how the suits are resolved. Why do people need to resort to lawsuits? Are the lawsuits justified?

— Look at recent examples of advertising or media stories being attacked or pulled because they offended one group or another. For example, several years ago, the sombrero-wearing chihuahua in the Taco Bell commercials was attacked as being demeaning.

— Read the letters-to-the-editor in several newspapers for a week or two, looking for concerns about political correctness. Collect examples and draw conclusions.

— Interview people on both sides of politically correctness issues locally. Interviews might include members of minority groups that are often the object of ethnic slurs, as well as people who must be sensitive in their work to issues of political correctness (politicians, editors, publishers, writers, etc.)

Theme Four: Perpetual Happiness

One of the most interesting themes in Fahrenheit 451 is happiness. Faber, Montag’s friend who was a former college professor, listed and discussed three things a person needs for true happiness (p. 83). In summary, to be happy, Faber says that a person needs:

— quality information with depth

— leisure time to digest the information and think (leisure time, not free time)

— the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.

The happiness theme ties into the theme on entertainment. Are we really happy when we are kept occupied or amused? Here are some ideas you might have students try:

— Look at Beatty’s talk with Montag (pages 53-62). What techniques does Beatty advocate for keeping people happy? What parallels do you see between Beatty’s ideas and our own modern society, especially in the area of occupying people’s minds with trivia? (Remind students that this book was written before computers, the Internet, cell phones, video games and digital technology.)

— Examine each of Faber’s three necessities for happiness. Does our culture provide them? Look, also, at the increasing number of hours of work required to live (For example, about 30 years ago a loaf of bread cost about 10-15 minutes of work at the minimum wage; today, the same loaf costs about 40-45 minutes of minimum-wage work). What implications does this have on the time we have to learn and reflect on what we learn?

— Examine stress, pressure and speed in life and how they affect us. (Look, for example, at “road rage” and other phenomenon.) Do addictions (drugs, alcohol, television, entertainment, etc.) relate to stress and pressure?

— For one week set aside 15-30 minutes each day of quiet time: no television, no music, no cell phones, no reading, no talking, no activity. After each session note how your mind reacted and what you thought. Did you find it difficult to sit without doing something? Were you able to still the flow of images, thoughts and emotions? Keep a journal after each session to record your impressions.

— Examine meditation techniques of various kinds. Are there similarities between them? Are they effective and, if so, why? Why do people practice meditation?

Fill them with “non-combustible data”

These four themes are more important today than they were when Ray Bradury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. They also insure the book’s timeless relevance. Exploring these themes as they study the book will help students become more aware of how (at times) the government, corporations and media try to control how we think and act. Understanding the techniques involved will help them make decisions based on their own needs and desires, on their own life journeys, rather than a manufactured need for entertainment or technology, or on “pseudo” journeys being created to manipulate and control them. It’s worth closing by repeating Fire chief Beatty words to Montag:

Let [people] forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they can win by remembering the words to more popular songs! Cram them full of non-conbustible data, chock them so damned full of `facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.

One final point for discussion: Could the current push toward standardized curriculum and testing be considered a form of censorship? Could dictating what must be taught and (through the tests) how it should be taught be considered filling students full of “non-combustible data?” Perhaps Bradbury’s firemen have been replaced by politicians, corporations and special interest groups.