Or what if, Jonas went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, people were allowed to choose their own jobs?
Dystopian novels of the future for young adults provide rich source material for getting pupils to think more deeply about their lives, choices and transitions.
The Giver by the American children’s writer Lois Lowry appeared in 1993 making it probably the first of a genre with which we have become familiar through successful franchises such as The Hunger Games. The Giver has now been made into a film too with a cast that includes Jeff Bridges as The Giver and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder. Brenton Thwaites is Jonas and watch out too for a cameo by Taylor Swift as Rosemary, the Receiver of Wisdom who asked to be released. If you don’t know the book or film, you may be wondering now what on earth I’m talking about!
What drew me to The Giver was the potential of the story to illuminate some key concepts in career development through the teaching of English. Cross-curricular teaching is something we often aspire to do in education but find so difficult to achieve.
Here’s a synopsis of the careers aspects of the story.
Jonas is an Eleven coming up for the Ceremony of Twelve when young people in the community are assigned their adult jobs by the committee of elders who have been observing their aptitudes. The community needs jobs such as birthmothers and labourers which are regarded as low status as well as doctors and engineers whose training is arduous. Jonas is chosen to be the next Receiver of Wisdom.
The community is highly regulated, rule-bound and resistant to change. Its people are emotionally stunted – intense feelings such as love, happiness, pain and death have been chemically eradicated from their consciousness. Society is built on the principles of ‘sameness’ and ‘precision in the use of language’. It is literally a grey world; but Jonas can glimpse colour. Until the Giver teaches him, Jonas does not know what it is that he is seeing. As the Receiver of Wisdom he will become the one person in the community who is entrusted with the memories of what people’s lives used to be like before they became so rigidly controlled. Jonas, fired by the idealism of youth, wants to restore people’s memories of these powerful emotions and give them back freedom, choice and uncertainty. The story is a moving exploration of what it means to be human.
The Giver opens up rich themes for discussion. How would pupils feel about living in a society where jobs are allocated by those in authority rather than chosen by individuals themselves, even if the elders do take people’s aptitudes into account? How also would they feel about living in a society where transitions are abrupt and uncompromising? On a day in December each year, children’s lives change. Eights have to give up their comfort toys, Nines get bicycles, Tens get their adult hair styles and Elevens are told the jobs they will train for. Of course, the people in the community are not experiencing the full emotional force of the career transitions they make. In real life, career transitions can be emotionally complex, prolonged and problematic.
What’s so engaging about the novel is that it presents a society that is trying to ensure personal, social and economic wellbeing for its members but has lost its way. It's a themes that also invites comparison with our own society today - that's for you and your pupils to explore! By the way, the ending of the book is more ambiguous and satisfying than the film but I don’t want to give away any more than that!