The Many Faces of Freedom

Grades K-3 | Grades 4-6 | Grades 7-8 | Grades 9-12 | Featured Lessons | Featured Websites | About the Image

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
—Winston Smith, in George Orwell’s 1984

OrwellBooks about freedom occupy a special place in the literary consciousness of a nation founded to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity”—and George Orwell’s 1984 is no exception. Winston Smith was born as a figment of Orwell’s imagination, but he has helped generations of readers begin to imagine what a world without freedom might look like. Whatever one thinks of Winston Smith’s perspective on the essence of freedom, this much is clear: his is not the last word on the subject.

Orwell’s 1984 is one of sixteen classic books on the theme of “freedom” selected for the latest We the People Bookshelf reading list. We the People, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, supports projects that strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture. The Endowment will make one thousand complete sets of the We the People Bookshelf on Freedom available to school and public libraries nationwide. For information on applying to receive a Bookshelf, click here.

The volumes chosen for the We the People Bookshelf include selections appropriate for all levels of K-12 education and reflect the wide variety of angles from which “freedom” can be approached. Selected books range from history to prophecy, from biography to fantasy, and from documentary to satire. Some works concentrate on the personal freedom of the individual, while others contemplate the collective freedom of the nation. Some focus on freedom lost or threatened, while others focus on freedom gained or preserved.

For all their variety, the selected books have at least this in common: they do not spell out what freedom means, but rather encourage readers to question their most cherished assumptions about the possibilities and limits of freedom. Orwell’s depiction of totalitarian society is more than a grim doomsday warning. It is an invitation to readers to synthesize what they know of history, psychology, philosophy, language, and culture to tackle some of the most challenging questions we can ask about the future of human relations. In engaging a wide variety of humanities themes, these books remind us that the seminal texts on the topic of freedom are best understood when placed within their historical, literary, and social contexts.

The challenge of defining precisely what “freedom” entails is an ongoing process, practiced in law and in citizenship, debated in political theory, and experimented with in fiction. Presidents, scholars, and storytellers continuously contribute tentative theses on the nature and meaning of human freedom, knowing full well that their insights are an extension of this process of definition and evaluation, rather than its conclusion. In a democratic society, literature exploring the meaning of freedom helps keep the conversations going. Students, parents, and educators can turn to the resources offered by EDSITEment for help in guiding, structuring, and enriching those conversations.

Several of the titles and authors selected for the Bookshelf deal with subjects treated in EDSITEment lesson plans or featured in EDSITEment-reviewed Web sites. Below you will find a sampling of books from the We the People Bookshelf and the EDSITEment resources that can provide context for their study. The EDSITEment lesson plans and Web sites listed below, although not specifically devoted to the theme of freedom, demonstrate the wide range of topics and themes that complement and expand our discussions of freedom. For some basic discussion questions exploring the meaning of “freedom” within American political culture, please refer to the July 2004 EDSITEment Feature.

For a complete listing of the We the People Bookshelf on “freedom,” click here.

Grades K-3

  • H.W. Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” is covered extensively in two EDSITEment lessons: Why Do We Remember Revere? Paul Revere's Ride in History and Literature and Not Only Paul Revere: Other Riders of the American Revolution. By placing Longfellow’s ode to Revere in its social and historical context, these lessons invite students to think about the ways in which literature shapes and is shaped by historical memory. These lessons are designed for students in grades 6-8 but may be adapted for younger readers by emphasizing the most basic questions raised by the lesson: What is a story? What is history? How and why do we remember the past? How and why is Paul Revere different from other heroes of the American Revolution?
  • Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit is featured in the EDSITEment lesson plan Beatrix Potter's Naughty Animal Tales. The lesson places the familiar tale of Peter Rabbit in the perhaps less familiar context of the Victorian value-system in which Potter was raised. The lesson plan helps students imagine a world of rules and regulations altogether different from their own and encourages readers to consider what tales like Peter Rabbit would have meant to Victorian children. This lesson is designed for students in grades 3-5 but features activities that are well suited for younger students also. See especially the Fun! Area of the World of Peter Rabbit Web site, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library.
  • Paul Goble’s The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses exemplifies a genre of folk literature featured in two EDSITEment lesson plans: Folktales and Ecology: Animals and Humans in Cooperation and Conflict and Helpful Animals and Compassionate Humans in Folklore. These lessons will help readers understand The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses as a typical example of a cross-cultural phenomenon: folktales that center on the bond between humans and animals. The lesson invites students to think about why the human-animal relationship has been such a popular and recurrent motif in the traditional lore of so many different cultures. Note that though both lessons are geared for students in grades 3-5, Folktales and Ecology: Animals and Humans in Cooperation and Conflict includes specific instructions for adapting the lesson for K-2.

Grades 4-6

  • Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me is an introduction to the achievements of Benjamin Franklin. Among Franklin’s greatest contributions was his role in drafting the Albany Plan of Union in 1754. The Albany Plan was an early precursor to both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, making Franklin one of the very first patriots to advocate a union of the thirteen colonies. The EDSITEment lesson plan Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers identifies connections between Franklin’s Albany Plan and the keystone documents it helped inspire. For students who want to delve deeper into the life of Benjamin Franklin himself, a companion lesson entitled Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men links to a number of Franklin biographies.
  • Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave presents the memoirs of slaves in their own words. The EDSITEment lesson plan Slave Narratives: Constructing U.S. History Through Analyzing Primary Sources offers suggestions for guiding students through the analysis and interpretation of slave testimonials. The lesson poses crucial questions about the strengths and weaknesses of oral histories as primary source texts. The set of documents featured in the lesson may also afford interesting comparisons/contrasts to the testimonials in Lester’s compilation.
  • Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear transports readers to the world of the Underground Railroad. Helpful background information is available through the EDSITEment resource National Park Service: Links to the Past, which links to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. The EDSITEment-reviewed Web site Africans in America also offers a Resource Bank, which links to primary source documents on Harriet Tubman, fugitive slaves, and the operation of the Underground Railroad.

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Grades 7-8

  • Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils is set on an Illinois farm during the Civil War. Readers can familiarize themselves with the difficult choices facing Illinois farmers during the war by visiting the EDSITEment resource At Home in the Heartland Online. The site presents engaging exhibits tracking Illinois farmers from 1700 to the present, including an interactive story based on the real-life experiences of one Illinois farm family coping with the possibility of being drafted to fight in the Civil War. The exhibit, which is specifically designed for students in grades 6-8, dovetails nicely with the issues presented in Hunt’s novel.
  • Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in Connecticut rather than in Massachusetts, but the EDSITEment lesson plan Dramatizing History in Arthur Miller's The Crucible may be useful in helping students enter the mental world of the Puritan settlers of New England. The lesson is intended for students in high school, but the lesson’s links to information on Puritan beliefs, culture, and society are appropriate for younger students as well.

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Grades 9-12

  • Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia is a documentary record of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. EDSITEment offers two lessons on the framing of the Constitution: The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met and The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said. Both lessons are intended for middle school students, but they link to primary source texts that are indispensable to higher level discussions of our founding document.
  • An entire EDSITEment lesson plan is dedicated to Willa Cather’s classic, My Antonia. The lesson, Pioneer Values in Willa Cather's My Antonia, places the novel in the historical context of nineteenth-century pioneer society and asks students to ponder the ways in which a particular ethos may be represented in and by literature.
  • Readers of George Orwell’s overtly polemical novels, Animal Farm and 1984, might be curious to learn more about Orwell’s political inclinations. Several of Orwell’s political writings are available through Voice of the Shuttle: English Literature, a link from the EDSITEment resource, Center for the Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia. Read in conjunction with his novels, Orwell’s political essays and newspaper articles are certain to stimulate conversation on the intersections of literature and political philosophy.

Putting these books in context is only the first step. As students begin to understand where these books are situated within the larger public discourse on freedom, they will soon be able to offer their own appraisals of the disparate voices that participate in the discussion. These books allow students to reflect on and evaluate the differing positions on freedom that individuals hold.

Parents and teachers can challenge students to consider the implications of claims like that posited by Winston Smith in 1984. What does Winston really mean when he defines freedom as “the freedom to say that two plus two make four?” Winston seems to be suggesting that freedom means permission to speak the truth. But whose truth? Very few truths are as self-evidently clear as “two plus two make four.” So what happens when there is genuine disagreement in a free society?

  • Does respecting the freedom of individuals ever mean permitting them to say things that are widely regarded as false?
  • What are the benefits and challenges to a society of allowing individual citizens to say things that are deemed untrue by an overwhelming majority?
  • Clearly, the freedom to say things that are “true” is much more limited than the freedom to speak one’s conscience. Which version of freedom do we prefer?
  • What is the ultimate lesson of 1984? Does freedom lie in the triumph of truth or in the possibility of dissent?

Students, parents, and teachers can use questions like these as a springboard to engage the enduring debates introduced in EDSITEment’s July Feature. Alternatively, the activities and discussion questions outlined in the Feature can function as an introduction to any of the books on the We the People reading list. The Feature uses Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech as a vehicle for introducing three broad conceptual questions that must be accounted for in any vision of free society:

  • Which freedoms may be enumerated as most essential?
  • Does liberty mean freedom from constraints or freedom to achieve certain ends?
  • Is the idea of freedom universal?

The questions raised in the Feature can be made relevant to each of the books by asking students to imagine how the fictional and historical characters they are reading about might respond to these questions. For instance, students might try the following activity:

Imagine that Winston Smith were making a public speech that begins with the words: “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” Which four freedoms would Winston cite as most essential, and why?

If you are interested in further suggestions for discussing the nuances of “freedom,” please refer to this month’s EDSITEment Feature.

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Featured Lessons

Featured Web Sites

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George Orwell, author of 1984.
Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.