Teaching Anthem by Ayn Rand offers excellent opportunities for both philosophical and literary exploration (even if you disagree with her themes). Here are some approaches that have helped me in teaching Anthem. I have grouped the ideas into before, during, and after reading sections.
Before starting the novella…
Think about why you are teaching Anthem.
Anthem is an amazing novella by an ingenious woman who does not think much of women generally. She has become the darling of hard-core capitalists who oppose social programs (even though Rand herself ultimately accepted her social security benefits).
Whatever your personal views, be prepared to defend your approach in teaching Anthem. I have some strong opinions against many of Rand’s views, but that is one reason why I enjoy teaching the book. Students are in the classroom to consider a variety of points of view. I try to present the book in an unbiased way, so students can develop and defend their own ideas.
Related post: Why You Should Teach Anthem by Ayn Rand
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Get students thinking about society before teaching Anthem.
Explain that for thousands of years philosophers and social scientists have been thinking about how to make a more perfect society. People are often trying to improve society in different ways, but there have also been revolutionary changes (some with disastrous consequences.)
You may want to have students research different forms of government/society or the ideas of philosophers and authors.
Many authors have offered their hypothetical examples (“Utopias Becoming Dystopias” [3 minutes] instructional video from Shmoop.com.) Explain that in Anthem, Ayn Rand imagines a society based on some interesting ideals and rules, including the abolition of singular personal pronouns (I, me, my, mine, his, her, etc.)
Thought experiment: society reboot
Ask students to identify the biggest problems of their society. What if they could press the reset button and start from scratch? Have the students engage in a thought experiment where they create an entirely new society. Have them present the society to the class by identifying the fundamental ideals and how the new society would function.
Explore ideological conflicts before teaching Anthem.
Teach the basic concepts collectivism, socialism, free market economy, capitalism, etc. Explain that a major feature of the twentieth century was the ideological conflict resulting from the emergence of communism.
I like to explore the Cold War and capitalism vs. communism through propaganda cartoons:
- “Capitalist Sharks” (10 minutes) Pro-Soviet animation shows the Soviet workers overcoming external threats
- “Make Mine Freedom” (10 minutes) 1948 anti-communism animation
- “American Imperialist: The Millionaire” (10 minutes) Soviet animation against capitalist dogs
- “Going Places” (9 minutes) 1948 animation about why capitalism works
Why did each country find it so important that everyone in their society agreed with their way of life? If their way of life was so great, what were they worried about?
How can we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of society? Should the government require citizens to work, wear a helmet, quit smoking, buy health insurance, pay taxes, join the army, or serve on a jury? Should the wealthy be forced to share their money?
Teaching Anthem activity: sticker economies
Into: Discuss how people can become wealthy in a capitalist society. Of course, some ways are based on effort or ability and other ways are fortuitous, like benefits of birth.
Through: Have a trivia contest as a class. Explain that this contest is an analogy for economics. The nature of the questions is unimportant, but they should be fairly difficult.
This competition will have a capitalist round and a communist round. In the capitalist round, each student answers until they get an answer wrong, and they receive their earnings (some token reward) individually. The communist round is identical except that the winnings go to a collective reserve. When the communist round ends, all players receive an equal share.
Beyond: Ask students to reflect on the game:
- How did your results differ between the two rounds?
- In which round did you earn more?
- Which round was more fair? Why?
- What if the challenge was more effort than simply answering questions?
- How would the game be different if everyone started out with different amounts?
- How is this game an analogy?
Related post: Activities for Teaching Anthem by Ayn Rand
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When teaching Anthem, help students contextualize the themes by learning about Ayn Rand’s life.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia and was twelve when the revolutions began (1917). She experienced the turn to communism personally. The turmoil was difficult for her family (considered bourgeoisie); the government took their pharmacy business.
When Rand came to the United States in 1926, she fell in love with its ideals and decided that she had to stay. She has been criticized by many as sexist, hypocritical, and immoral. Others see her as a champion of individualism and freedom.
Preview the culminating task.
Tell students in advance what they will need to do at the end of the unit to demonstrate understanding. Help them to see where this exploration is headed.
Is there anything they should do as they read to make things easier later? For example, if they will be writing an essay on symbols / recurring elements, students might pick a symbolic element before even starting the novella and “cheat” by taking notes as they read:
- The tunnel
- Nature / the sky
- Pain / suffering
- Darkness / light
- Bible stories
- Physical beauty
- Forbidden words / ideas
- Mythological stories
- Indoctrination (brainwashing)
Talk about how many find Rand’s themes offensive.
In my view, a teacher is not meant to tell students which ideals are right and which ideals are wrong. The teacher should present the views an encourage students to think critically. Before students start reading, explain that Ayn Rand is a controversial figure and that they are to form their own conclusions on her messages. This increases engagement as students prepare to develop and support their views as they read Anthem.
While Reading Anthem…
Hold students accountable for independent reading.
When students are not prepared, a well-planned lesson becomes a shattered dream. You may realize that very few of the students actually read the assignment. The students who did read feel cheated and frustrated.
I have found that the best way to hold students accountable for the assigned reading is through reading quizzes, which I count as homework grades. The students who read feel victorious.
In the past, many of my students have tried to fake their way through literature circle role sheets, online responses, reading packets, focus questions, and the like. When this is the case, it is not surprising that engagement is low. A simple, 10-question quiz gets better results and means that I don’t have to wade through piles of packets that the students have copied from each other anyway. Give yourself (and the copying machine) a break. When the majority of the students read with fidelity, engagement follows.
Use the quizzes to communicate with parents / guardians. Having reliable data on the student’s reading level is critical to this conversation. If a student has a high reading level but cannot pass the quizzes, what is going on? If a student has a lower reading level and cannot pass, what can we do to help them?
Suggested reading schedule:
- Week 1 Chapter 1 (5-37)
- Week 2 Chapters 2-7 (38-77)
- Week 3 Chapters 8-12 (78-105)
Page numbers refer to ISBN: 9780451227577
Focus on textual evidence when teaching Anthem.
The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on citing textual evidence. As a result, more and more standardized tests are asking students to demonstrate capable identification and citing of key examples.
In my long-form literature units, I want students to practice citing textual evidence in two modes. First, I want the students to become comfortable in identifying and analyzing textual evidence in informal classroom activities. Second, I want students to build on this skill in writing formal compositions and/or presentations that include formal citations.
Have students codify the rules governing the collective society.
In teaching Anthem, have students think about the main rules governing their own society. What are the key ideals and principles? Have them think about laws, rights, expectations, good citizenship, morality, and achievement.
Now have them think about the fundamental ideals in the world of Anthem. Equality illustrates them through his experiences and reflections. Have the students create a document (anthem, constitution, code, manual, etc.) expressing these ideals as the World Council of Leaders might.
Analyze indoctrination in the Anthem society.
Teaching Anthem is a great inroad to studying propaganda and indoctrination. Have the students compare real-life examples with the examples Equality describes in the novella. In addition, ask students to consider how Anthem itself is propaganda.
Have students write from a collective point of view.
Ask the students to imagine that they live in a world without singular pronouns and where all names have been replaced with numbers. Have the students write a short personal narrative (real story from their life) that does not include any names or singular personal pronouns (I, my, me, mine, he, she, him, her, his, or hers). This could be a friendly creative writing contest.
Trace the development of internal and external conflicts in Anthem.
Have the students think about other narratives where the protagonist’s internal conflict and the main external conflict are inextricably linked. Have the students use textual evidence to trace Equality’s fall from collective thought. The students should identify key excerpts that develop the conflicts and provide insightful analysis for each:
“May the Council have mercy upon us! We had no wish to write such a question, and we knew not what we were doing till we had written it. We shall not ask this question and we shall not think it. We shall not call death upon our head.” (Rand 49)
Because he has been indoctrinated, Equality truly wants to end his “sinful” ways. Yet his curiosity and determination cannot be contained. When he stops to think about his behavior, his internal conflict causes him great stress. At this point, the external conflict with the society is minimal because he hides his crimes successfully. The reader can anticipate that his curiosity will create the external conflict with the society.
Analyze the hypocrisies of the egalitarianism in Anthem.
The society in Anthem is all about equality, or is it? Have students examine the novella so far to find key examples about how “equality” works in Anthem. Are there any examples that show that their equality is not as perfect as they believe? How does Equality’s interactions with the World Council demonstrate this hypocrisy? Ask students to explain what Rand is saying regarding societies based on equality.
Teaching Anthem by examining the title
Definitions of an anthem:
1) a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause.
2) a choral composition based on a Biblical passage, for singing by a church choir.
Have students analyze Rand’s selection of the title. How does either of these definitions apply? What other titles might she have considered? Inform the students that her original title was Ego. Which title is better and why?
Teaching Anthem and word choice
Ask the students to focus on word choice in Anthem and explain that word choice includes…
- Figurative meanings (metaphors, similes, idioms, understatement, etc.)
- Connotative meanings (feelings and associations)
- Multiple meanings
- Imagery / sensory language (our five senses)
- Sense of time and place
- Sound devices (alliteration, parallel construction, repetition, etc…)
Have student groups select key excerpts so that they may present an analysis. Remind them to refer to the key word choice terms above as they explain Rand’s style.
Rand’s use of allusions
Teaching Anthem is an excellent means for studying how authors use allusions to suit their purpose. In many cases, Rand inverts allusions to the divine in order to sanctify humanity. For example, Equality and Liberty decide for themselves to return to Eden. It is their knowledge that allows rather than denies their entry to paradise. Equality is his own god and only considers his own will.
Have students analyze how Rand uses (or abuses) these connections:
- Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”
- Moses (Mt. Sinai and the Exodus)
- Genesis (Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden)
- The New Testament (Jesus and his disciples)
Ask the students to consider why Rand, an atheist, utilizes Biblical and other religious references so extensively.
After Reading Anthem…
Equality’s evolving point of view
Students should trace the development of Equality’s point of view. Ask the students to identify the point of view stages that Equality moves through. As I see it, there are three major stages of his point of view in the novella. Have the students identify one citation to represent each of the stages.
Write Equality’s final journal entry. Perhaps he is very old and preparing to die. What happened in the rest of his life? Did his point of view change or remain the same after the final chapter?
Have students present on Anthem‘s recurring elements and symbols.
Teaching Anthem sample lesson:
Into: Review thematic elements and theme as necessary. Remind students that a thematic element is a word or phrase while a theme is always a complete sentence (e.g. love vs. Love stinks.)
Have the students identify all of the themes (complete sentences) that they can identify in Anthem. Include the unimportant to the very important. Create a chart of the themes. Ask students to identify the most important themes to Rand.
Through / Beyond: Authors can develop themes in a variety of ways. The author might state the theme explicitly: e.g. “The message of this story is that you should always be yourself.” Usually the reader must think about the setting, plot events, symbols, motifs, etc. to make inferences and reach a conclusion about the theme. Assign each student group one of the following recurring elements Anthem:
- The tunnel
- Nature / the sky
- Pain / suffering
- Darkness / light
- Bible stories
- Physical beauty
- Forbidden words / ideas
- Mythological stories
- Indoctrination (brainwashing)
Students need to present (logically and appropriately) to the class on how the motif develops a major theme. Note that Rand uses some motifs in non-traditional ways, like co-opting Bible stories to sanctify humans. Decide if you want the students to use citations from the text or to simply explain. (This task could be expanded into a major presentation assignment.)
Writing: The themes in Anthem are not isolated from each other. Choose two or more themes from the class chart and explain how Rand weaves the themes together. Consider including key symbols and motifs in your explanation.
Respond to Rand’s messages. Do you agree with her completely? Do you disagree completely? Do you agree in some ways but not others? Explain.
Digging in to controversy
On Rand’s writing Dorothy Parker wrote, “It is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Many people despise Rand’s messages. Ask students to identify the themes of Anthem, and explain the objections readers might have.
Encourage students to accept or reject the messages of Anthem.
Now that Ayn Rand has had her say, it is time for students to have theirs. Which of her ideas are right and which are wrong? Should their be a limit to self-interest? Are her views dangerous? How should a society balance individualism and collectivism? How much responsibility does an individual have for the well-being of others? What is fair? Does fairness even matter? How much responsibility does an individual have for the well-being of others?
These types of questions are the reasons why I enjoy teaching Anthem.
Teaching Anthem to spark creative writing
Utopia / Dystopia
Write a short story around the concept of utopia / dystopia. How might a society seeking perfection in one aspect go terribly wrong? For example, imagine a society that decided that the real problem was that everyone was not getting enough sleep. What extreme measures might the society take? How might the extreme measures actually make life worse?
Demonstrate narrative elements: point of view, plot, dialogue (maybe), transitions, sensory language, tone, tension, etc.
Anthem II: The World Council Strikes Back
Ok, maybe the World Council doesn’t strike back, but imagine you have been hired by the Ayn Rand Institute (it is real thing) to write a short sequel for Anthem. You could start right after the last chapter, skip ahead generations, or even write a prequel. Make sure you demonstrate narrative elements: point of view, plot, dialogue (maybe), transitions, sensory language, tone, tension, etc…
Equality has restored a printing press from the Unmentionable Times (this could be the name of the publication). He plans to write a one-page pamphlet to distribute in the City of Men.
Write the pamphlet arguing that individuals should abandon the society and help Equality form his new society. Make sure to demonstrate the elements of written argument: claims, opposing claims, reasons, evidence, and transitions.
Teaching Anthem and student performance
World Council Propaganda
The fact that Liberty and Equality abandoned the City has created a stir. The World Council is uneasy. Create a propaganda campaign aimed at keeping everyone in line. Remember that the technology is limiting you to slogans, chants, plays, and posters.
Anthem on the stage or screen
In a cooperative group, adapt one excerpt from Anthem for stage or screen. Work together to write a simple script and keep a record of the discussions, disagreements and decisions (speaking and listening standards). You may change elements of the novella if it makes sense for the new medium, but stay true to the tone and theme. Before performing, give a summary of your group’s creative choices.
Anthem has much to recommend it as a classroom text. Despite its brevity, it is packed with engaging elements and topics. Don’t let political or philosophical concerns prevent you from including it in your practice. Teaching great literature is not meant to silence disagreement but to illuminate it.