First-Year Reading

Each year, the first-year class dean asks students to read a common text. The first-year reading connects you to the Holy Cross community through a shared reading experience, welcoming you to a culture that values the thoughtful discussion of ideas.

In preparation for beginning your education at Holy Cross, Francisco Gago-Jover, Class Dean for the Class of 2026, has selected “1984” by George Orwell, as the first-year class reading.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” These are the opening words of George Orwell’s 1984, where he subtly alerts the reader that statements of truth in this fictional society should be called into question.

1984 is a book about a rebellion that fails and the rebel knows it's going to fail, but it's also a thriller, and a love story and in times, a horror story.

Despite being a dystopian novel, many images and concepts are based on Orwell’s own experiences: the urban landscape was inspired by London after the war, still showing blitz damage; the Ministry of Truth was based on his time working for the BBC; and the idea of changing truth had come to him when he fought in the Spanish Civil War and saw that many of the news reports just bore no resemblance to what he had actually seen.

Although Orwell was worried about some pernicious and oppressive tendencies that he had identified in society, habits which he thought could lead democracies down a very dark path, he was also able to write about things yet to come: the two-way telescreen, a technology that allowed Big Brother to place society under constant surveillance; the thought police, which arrested people for things that they hadn't even done yet; a new form of language, newspeak, designed to limit the range of thought; a new epistemological approach, doublethink, that taught people to believe two contradictory things, thus making them lose faith in objective truth; a historical record being constantly revised, thus rewriting history, and also rewriting reality.

There is so much in the book that different aspects of it come to the surface at different periods in history. When it came out and throughout the 1950s it was seen as a study of totalitarianism and as a critique of Stalinism. But as the Soviet Union began to weaken in the 80s and in the early 90s, the same period that saw the birth of the personal computer, the cell phone, and the internet, people became far more interested in the technology that underpins society, reading 1984 as a warning against computer databases and closed circuit TV cameras. More recently, with the exponential growth of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc.) and some of the controversies surrounding social media ownership, truth and disinformation, and free speech, 1984 has become a powerful lens to understand our own society.

As you read, or listen to, the book, please reflect on the questions below. Your first assignment as a Holy Cross student is to write a brief essay (about 300-350 words) in which you respond to one (or more) of the questions. Before first-year advising on Monday, August 29, you should email your essay to your academic advisor and your Montserrat professor.

  1. What is truth? How do we determine what is true or false? Is truth permanent or mutable?
  2. Do historical facts change, or simply the way we interpret them? If we chose to ignore, deny, or not to study what happened in the past, does it mean that nothing good or bad happened?
  3. When the meaning of words is manipulated, what do words mean? If there's no word for friendship, or love, or war, or peace, how do you describe friendship, or love, or war, or peace?
  4. Our personal view of reality is shaped by our experiences, by our beliefs, and by what we interpret to be true. How do we communicate effectively with others who have different experiences, beliefs, and interpretations?
  5. What are the risks of not saying what you think, or not thinking what you say? Do you say what you think, or what others say that you should think and say?
  6. Do you think that Big Brother exists? Who do you think Big Brother is?
  7. When there’s a technology powerful enough to allow for easy mass surveillance, how do you protect your right to privacy and freedom? Are you aware of any such technologies?
  8. Should the price of being connected to the world be sharing our most intimate personal details?
  9. What is free speech? Should there be limits to it? What do you think they should be? Why?