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Opinion: Debate and democracy: How “Animal Farm” presents a uniquely teachable moment

The election approaches. Presidential debates begin. Everywhere we see articles and books on the threat to our democracy. 

Children will listen. Students sense the divide. Many perceive how important Nov. 3 will be. 

Teachers have a role. To be sure, not to use the classroom to advocate our own personal beliefs. 

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.

Instead, to encourage discussion — even debate! — about key ideas that speak to the moment. 

If I were teaching again, my choice would be a close reading of George Orwell’s short fable, “Animal Farm.”

Here a sample of what a class might explore in the first half of the story, focusing on one word, one principle: debate. (See also synonyms: discussion, question, difference of opinion.) Examine how and why it evolves over several chapters. 

The Rebellion has taken place. It is now the animals’ farm. In chapter three, they gather for a Meeting in the big barn. The pigs, especially two of them, take the lead. 

“Here the work of the coming week was planned out and resolutions were put forward and debated.”

“Snowball and Napoleon were by far the most active in the debates.” The two engage in one “stormy debate over the correct retiring age for each class of animal.” 

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Meetings continue. By winter, though, “it had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decision has to be ratified by a majority vote.”

We read of more “disputes” and “violent debates” and “disagreement” between the two leaders, especially over the idea of building a windmill. In chapter five, Snowball, the more eloquent of the two, seems to have persuaded the animals to support the project. Suddenly Napoleon’s “enormous dogs” attack Snowball and chase him off the farm. The animals gather. Napoleon “announces”:

…  from now on the Sunday-morning Meetings would come to an end… In future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself… The animals would still assemble on Sunday mornings to salute the flag, sing Beasts of England, and receive their orders for the week; but there would be no more debates.

Independent thought, however, has not disappeared.

The animals were dismayed …  Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments. Even Boxer [the aging, powerful horse] was vaguely troubled. He set his ears back, shook his forelock several times, and tried hard to marshal his thoughts; but in the end he could not think of anything to say.

Napoleon’s spokesperson, Squealer, is “sent round the farm to explain the new arrangements to the others.” He asserts:

No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where would we be?

The animals appear convinced that “the debates must stop.” 

Boxer, who now had time to think things over, voiced the general feeling by saying, “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.’”

From this point on, when the animals gather in the barn on Sunday, it is “to receive their orders for the week… and after a single singing of Beasts of England, all the animals dispersed.” 

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Still, they cannot help but wonder about apparent contradictions. Napoleon changes course; he now fully approves of the building of the windmill. Squealer is again sent out to explain. Though many animals are puzzled, chapter five ends on this ominous note: 

Squealer spoke so persuasively, and the three dogs who happened to be with him growled so threateningly, that they accepted his explanation without further questions.

The opening sentence of chapter six reveals the new reality: “All that winter the animals worked like slaves.” 

Of course Orwell did not have America in the fall of 2020 in mind when he created “Animal Farm.” As he himself stated, his purpose was to write “against totalitarianism.” And to show how democracy can die.

Teachers need only let the story speak for itself. Let’s foster good classroom discussions. Help students explore what this simple story might say about voting and debates and protest – as we struggle to hold on to our own democracy.


Peter Huidekoper Jr. is the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Cohort. He taught “Animal Farm” to 8th graders.


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