The Easily Governed
“An educated people can be easily governed.” – Frederick the Great
This was an essay that I wrote in college in regards to a piece of writing by Northop Frye entitled, "Don't You Think It's Time To Start Thinking?". This piece of writing is a big influence in changing my perception of the world, as it writes almost as an introduction into the deeper issues affecting our society today; issues that most of the population are not concerned with, or are just not aware of. It also made me aware that education and the system we use today was not learning, but indoctrination. Further research into the topic of education will be explored by myself in a later article, but for now is the essay that I had written. I hope you enjoy. -MPR
Don't You Think It's Time To Start Thinking?
In Northrop Frye’s “Don’t You Think It’s Time to Start Thinking?”, the topic of thinking as a skill and modern society’s execution of education is explored, and challenged, through the various literary devices and examples given in connection to his viewpoint: that thinking is a skill that requires training; that society does not encourage the ability to be intellectual or articulate; and that the modern education system teaches individuals only the minimum requirements of knowledge so as to be a citizen fully capable of running specific roles to continue the current social structure. Although on the surface it is a brief analysis on the lack of proper training in regards to his definition of thinking, Frye’s clever use of allusions with examples from literature and media seek to illustrate the much larger topic of social manipulation of the elite ruling class to explore the current status of social and political awareness of today’s average individual. He also introduces the reader to the connections of education to the presence of liberty in the present day, or the lack thereof, and the future consequences of such a system.
The character of Walter Mitty from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a reflection of modern day’s repressed general populace as formed from the current governing system. Frye also alludes to the idea that the public has misplaced trust in figures with assumed intellectual skill because of their social status. This is seen through Frye’s mention of Pierre Trudeau as it is implied that although he was a respected leader, because of his status and reputation, mistakes committed during his time in office were accepted by the public. Finally, Frye uses the example of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four” as he finally touches on the future ramifications of a society that seeks to teach the public majority the minimum intellectual requirements.
We Are All Walter Mittys
Frye’s first topic delved into the true definition of thinking. He expounded on the difference between thinking and other activities such as remembering and daydreaming. This is where Frye makes the connection with his point and the state of the general populace today, with the example of Walter Mitty.
Remember James Thurber’s Walter Mitty who was always dreaming great dreams of glory. When his wife asked him what he was doing he would say, “Has it ever occurred to you that I might be thinking?” (Frye 1986 p.91)
The tone of the story is quite light-hearted, and most identify with the character of Walter Mitty that it had been developed into a film in 1947; however, Frye’s use of Mitty has a much more serious undertone. He sends the message that the average individual today is the equivalent of a Walter Mitty. If one were to list the similarities between today’s average individual and Mitty, some similarities would be that: both are educated individuals; both are oppressed by other authorities, who in turn create boredom in their lives, and because of this both escape their harsh reality by living through fantasy and distraction.
Our society today are generally better-educated than ages past and have a system where everyone is entitled to a standard level of education. However, we are introduced to increasing amounts of stringent laws and by-laws, for seemingly minor concerns, and are pushed into an ever-smaller box of restriction. It is not surprising then, that we are introduced to a vast array of distraction whence we can escape into: the addicting vortex of the internet, tantalizing gossip on celebrities, the newest episode of an engrossing cop drama, or the exciting release of the newest electronic must-have. These are the Mitty fantasies that help today’s individuals escape their reality, and often, most people cannot live without these distractions. In 1999, 36.1% of the Canadian population was internet users; whereas a decade later, in 2009, that percentage has jumped to 77.7%. (WDI 2010) The sales of iPads were astounding, with sales of the first iPad worldwide at 14.8 million; later the iPad2 would surpass this, with worldwide sales in March 2011 reaching 15 million. (Wikipedia 2011) These are but a few numbers that illustrate the extent modern society relies and embraces the various diversions that keep us from truly seeing how the world is today. If one were to ask his or her friend about the most recent news on an actor, conversation would come easy; however, if one were to ask about a well-thought out analysis on the reasons of the conflict in Libya, then both would have little to say, except for a few vague phrases heard on the news.
The character of Walter Mitty could be assumed as having a decent amount of intellect. He is a science fiction writer who possesses a large amount of creativity and imagination; however, he is inadequate and regularly escapes into fantasies rather than dealing with reality. This is where the term ‘Mitty-esque’ derives from, and denotes someone with escapist tendencies to avoid dealing with boredom or hardship in his or her life, and is reflected in the general public of a society built on an excess of laws and the distractions built to help us cope. It is when individuals today can look up to intellectuals to help clarify what the maelstrom of information and subtle connection of events within our social system means, how it affects us, and how we can be involved that help us to prevent our total immersion into fantasy. It is important then, to be able to identify those who possess true intellect from those who present a guise of it, which Frye explores later in his essay.
Pierre Trudeau is regarded by many Canadians to be having been a strong leader and advocate of liberalism, and as an intellectual and philosopher, and after his death in 2000, had his profile “burnished to a high polish”. (Sibley 2006) The presence of intellectuals is important within a society, for they serve as our leaders, mentors and those with which we can aspire to be like. However, Frye’s mention of Trudeau in his essay implies a connection with society’s confusion with true thinking and today’s misconception of thinking. He makes the statement that if an individual were to compare their complete lack of intellect with one who possessed some, “we tend to regard him as possessing a gigantic intellect.” (Frye 1986) Frye was not entailing that Trudeau possessed immense intellect, but perhaps an adequate amount to impress the general public.
"The public saw Trudeau as a quick-witted, almost insouciant man who tossed off casual remarks, slid down royal banisters or made faces and gestures on a whim," says Jim Coutts, who served as Trudeau's principal secretary in the 1970s. "But he did and said little publicly that was not carefully rehearsed." (Sibley 2006)
It is interesting then, to see many famous celebrities to be thought of as intellectual. Modern society elevates those who do everything well that is mistook as thinking, but in reality is not; singers are given talk shows from where they talk about social issues and current events; actors become diplomats and representatives of countries. It is because they possess charisma and persuasive ability to sway public opinion that they become our leaders, mentors, and idols. Upon further investigation into Pierre Trudeau, it was revealed in the book, Young Trudeau by Max and Monique Nemni that Trudeau possessed qualities that one would not attribute to an advocate of liberalism, a “father of Confederation, the philosopher-king who remade Canada into a shiny multicultural mosaic.” (Sibley 2006) Pierre Trudeau in his younger years was a supporter for a separated Quebec, and admired past dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini.
Trudeau was no champion of democracy and individual freedoms. He was instead an ardent Quebec nationalist who, during the worst of the war years, admired fascist dictators, regarded reports of Nazi atrocities as British propaganda, plotted treason against the Canadian state and actively promoted a revolution to establish an independent Quebec solely for Catholic French Canadians. (Sibley 2006)
In October 1970, the separatist group Front de Liberation du Quebec kidnapped two government officials, and the country looked to see the current Prime Minister’s response. Pierre Trudeau invocated the use of The War Measures Act, which had been the only time the act had been used during peacetime. (Wikipedia 2011) This was an act done with some recklessness and was criticized as equivalent to “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.” (DFCTOMMY1971 2010) This gave police the power to search homes without warrants and arrest individuals without sufficient evidence, and was an insult to the ideals of democracy and liberty that Canada and its people uphold. Many intellectuals criticized the move; however, because of his proficient skill over the spoken word and the charismatic portrayal as galvanized by the media, Trudeau was able to win over the general public and have his actions largely applauded by the masses.
Today’s society, headed by the overwhelming influence of media, has shown that today’s general public have a confused idea of articulateness, as seen through the figures elevated to a status and given the title of ‘intellectual’. Also, the powers of such an intellectual, with the help of media and the government, have been shown to be able to change the opinions of large masses of population to suit their needs. The underlying connection between government, society and media, is evident because society does not encourage articulateness. As said by Frye, “A society like ours doesn’t have very much interest in literacy.” (Frye 1986) With that said, Frye goes further into his underlying topic, and the importance of the government’s connection with his previous points.
The Last Man
There is a pervasive idea, with the youth in particular, that possessing a large intellect is undesirable. It is why various phrases such as ‘smartass’ and ‘smartypants’ is used, activities requiring intellect is considered ‘uncool’, and going to school is seen as a useless activity by teenagers. Society seeks to discourage one from possessing intellect because such a level of skill is useless within the present social system. As Frye writes, “society must have docile and obedient citizens. We are taught to read and write so that we can obey the traffic signs…but development of verbal competency is very much left to the individual.” Often, the opportunity to develop verbal and intellectual skills was in the dominion of the rich, and that “thinking skills have always been the focus of “elite” schools, but not of “mass schooling.”” (Cromley 1998)
When Frye mentions George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, he connects the theme of the book to the state of modern day society. In Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell takes us through the ordeals of the main character Winston Smith as he attempts to survive within a totalitarian system. Unlike many of his peers, he possesses some level of intellect and ability to comprehend the perversion of his surroundings, thus rebel against the current state of the social system, as shown with his hate of the current government, his practice of writing in a secret diary, and his forbidden romance with a woman named Julia. The current government, run on the ideals of “English Socialism”, possess a system that keeps the working majority uneducated, and thus easily manipulated and governed. Intellect is less available to the majority, and made available only to those of the ruling class or “Inner Party”, and creativity and verbal richness is slowly being destroyed. (Orwell 1949) In the novel, Winston sits with a coworker as they talk about the newest edition of the national dictionary.
’The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said… ‘You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’…’it’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well…’ (Orwell 1949 p.28)
Most of the population in Nineteen Eighty-four is accepting of the current system, and this is because they generally are not articulate nor possess any level of intellect. When the news states that chocolate rations have gone up, they do not question the fact they do not see any of these extra rations or that they have not enough razors, nor do they complain.
Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April. (Orwell 1949 p.23)
This illustrates how the masses can be made to think a certain way, and is not only present in fiction but in reality as well. In the book Propaganda, Edward Bernays, known as the “father of Public Relations”, instructs on the various means of controlling public thought.
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our society. (Bernays 1928)
The power of controlling public thought is something that even government today focuses on, for those who possess high intellect and articulateness have the ability to also sway the attention of public opinion to their view, possess the level of respect of people for their message to matter, and to bring light to various violations the government have committed to the liberties of the people. This also means that intellect is a threat to the current power structure.
…times have changed. The steam engine, the multiple press, and the public school, that trio of the industrial revolution, have taken the power away from kings and given it to the people. The people actually gained power which the king lost for economic power tends to draw after it political power; and the history of the industrial revolution shows how that power passed from the king and the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. Universal suffrage and universal schooling reinforced this tendency, and at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people. For the masses promised to become king. To-day, however, a reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done to-day, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. (Bernays 1928)
It is the same powers which work constantly to make sure that those possessing significant intellect and verbal capacity are silenced or are made to work for them. An example of this is shown with Iran’s previous democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in office from 1951 to 1952. He sought to nationalize Iran’s oil supplies, which was then controlled by the British from 1913, and make Iran independent from other countries and namely, from the influences of the Western First World powers and the World Bank. (TZNOfficialChannel 2011) Therefore, because of this a coup d’état, led by the British M15 and the United States Central Intelligence Agency, removed him from power. He was imprisoned for three years and put under house arrest until his death for attempting to empower his country’s people, and is an example of current powers attempting to maintain that power from possible threat. (Wikipedia 2011)
In Nineteen Eighty-four, Winston is caught by the Thinkpol, or Thought Police, and is subsequently tortured and re-educated because he was the last intelligent man and his rebellious attitude was a threat toward the current government.
’Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’
’I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’
’And do you consider yourself a man?.’
’If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are non-existent.’ (Orwell 1949 p.156)
The Thinkpol’s main concern is the surveillance of the general populace’s thoughts and whether any creative, intelligent thought is being committed, as it is seen as a direct threat to The Party of Oceania and Ingsoc, the main ideology. It can be said that it is with the same purpose many organizations today exist, and often commit questionable deeds in the name of supposed ‘nationalism’ or protection against ‘national security’.
In his essay, Frye writes that “The kernel of everything reactionary and tyrannical in society is the impoverishment of the means of verbal communication.” (Frye 1986) The rich understory with his allusion of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four further illustrates his statement, by giving specific examples of how the destruction of language and outlawing intellectualness and articulateness not only leave the mind vulnerable to manipulation by powers seeking to maintain the current governing system, but eventually leave to the destruction of liberty and creativity.
The three allusions that Frye presents in Don’t You Think It’s Time to Start Thinking are all clever devices to illustrate the deeper topic each allusion illustrates. Walter Mitty reflects the state of the general populace today; stricken with boredom in a restrictive society that serves up plentiful distraction in the form of gossip, entertainment, and electronic ‘toys’. Pierre Trudeau was presented as an example of charisma taking place of intellect; how the public can be made to respect someone because of their status, and applaud their dubious actions. And because of this ability to influence public thought, Frye finally uses George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four as a means of illustrating how government seek to control the general populace to keep them obedient, as well as to protect their current power structure.
These allusions serve to introduce the reader using simpler, more digestible content, so that various levels of intellect can gain something from its reading. However, he also presents his allusions in a highly intellectual method; by hinting at the vast implications of his examples, one can investigate in-depth the extent of his message, and how it truly affects every one of us in this day and age, and see its various connections with politics, world events, and our modern social system.
If one were to delve too much into the details of the serious underlying message initially, rather than using the introductory format as Frye utilizes, the reader would be wont to think his allusions as excessive and verging on science fiction, rather than taking action, developing his or her verbal capacity, and identifying what it is that needs to be changed in the world today. It renders Frye’s essay to be but a read done in vain. It is interesting that, if one utilizes their intellect and articulateness, the use of Nineteen Eighty-four would instead insinuate prophecy, for, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda. New York, NY: Horace Liverright
Cromley, J. (1998-99). Learning to Think, Learning to Learn: What The Science of Thinking and Learning
Has to Offer Adult Education. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy
DFCTOMMY1971. (2010 October 16). War Measures Act Debate Part 4 [Video File]. Retrieved from
Frye, N. (1986) Don’t You Think It’s Time to Start Thinking. Toronto, ON: Toronto Star January 25, 1986.
iPad. (2011). Wikipedia.org. Retrieved 02:00, Nov 28, 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ipad
Mohammad Mosaddegh. (2011). Wikipedia.org. Retrieved 07:25, Nov 28, 2011 from
October Crisis. (2011). Wikipedia.org. Retrieved 03:47, Nov 28, 2011 from
Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-four. United Kingdom, London: Secker and Warburg
Pierre Elliot Trudeau. (2011). Biography.com. Retrieved 02:51, Nov 14, 2011 from
Sibley, R. (2006). Trudeau Deconstructed. Ottawa, ON: The Ottawa Citizen June 4, 2006.
Thurber, J. (1942). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company
TZMOfficialChannel. (2011, January 25). Zeitgeist: Moving Forward | Official Release | 2011 [Video File].
Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z9WVZddH9w
War Measures Act Debate. (n.d.) DCF.ca. Retrieved 03:47, Nov 28, 2011 from
World Development Indicators. (1960-2010). Worldbank.org. Retrieved 01:56, Nov 28, 2011 from