Anti-Intellectualism and Authentic Learning in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

In a letter dated January 22, 1951 to Richard Matheson from Ray Bradbury discussing “The Fireman,” the short story that would develop into Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury explains, in part, his intent and plans for the story,

“One thing I would like to re-emphasize and detail, if ‘The Fireman’ ever goes into book form, is the fact that radio has contributed to our ‘growing a lack of attention’ simply because we tune in, see five minutes of one thing, ten minutes of other [sic], half an hour of this, an hour of that. This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again . . . Also, I want to re-emphasize the fact that we haven’t time to think anymore. The greatcentrifuge of radio, television, pre-thought-out movies, etc. gives us no time to ‘stop and stare.’ Our lives are getting more scheduled all the time, there is no room for caprice, and caprice is the core of man, or should be the tiny happy nucleus around which his more mundane task can be assembled.”

While Fahrenheit has been in print for sixty years, it is sadly, most often relegated to high school English classes, where the extremely minor theme of censorship is made the focus of discussion. Anyone desiring an accurate reading of this masterpiece of dystopian fiction should read The Fireman, and then re-read Fahrenheit 451 slowly with special attention on the characters of Clarisse and retired professor Faber.

More than once, Ray Bradbury described Clarisse as his favorite character. Those familiar with Bradbury’s short stories and other novels would easily be able to say why. Clarisse is fully alive. She loves to walk, think, talk, observe, converse, enjoy sensations, and essentially live. Clarisse should stand as an example of the person striving to fully embrace the sheer goodness of being. It is worth noting that both Mildred and Captain Beatty have a disdain for Clarisse.

Clarisse has been instructed by her uncle, that if asked about her age, she is to respond, “. . . always say seventeen and insane.” After a barrage of questions and describing herself, as well as her family, Montag, reflecting the antiintellectualism of his society declares, “You think too many things.” It is this theme of antiintellectualism that should be explored in this book, and not the nearly absent theme of government censorship.

In addition to being inquisitive and explorative, positively driven by her senses, and observant, she also has moments of reflective silence. Silence figures in significantly with this work, frequently as both a contrast to the noisy busyness of the mass, but also as a precursor to authentic thought or contemplation.

Within the world of Fahrenheit 451, readers who are deemed “different” are classified negatively, and people like Clarisse are particularly dangerous. She is even required to see a “psychiatrist.” Because of Clarisse’s “odd” behavior, which is deemed counter-cultural, she is viewed as a threat to the social order. Clarisse must give an accounting for why she hikes, watches birds, collects butterflies, and manifests other antisocial behavior. These behaviors are deemed as unacceptable, antisocial manners, but what she usually enjoys, are described in contrast to what has become normative in an abnormal world. Listen in on this prophetic young lady, “But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher. That’s not social to me at all.” Essentially, there is more wisdom and meaning in the childlike “dandelion love test” Clarisse wants to administer to Guy Montag to see if he is in love than all the time combined of the attention that Mildred expends with her “family” on her tv-walls.

Part of the genius of this novel rests in the insightful manner in which social behavior and social institutions are given due attention. There is a dynamic interplay between social institutions and ideas that this literary work demonstrates. Social institutions (family, educational, and religious)are the environments within which we live and move. These institutions through signs, symbols, gestures, artifacts, and words shape the way people think and act. In other words they provide the means by which we even relate to the world at large. Within Fahrenheit 451, all the characters manifest this influence.

Within Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse is one of a few foils to a society that is willingly illiterate, willingly distracted, and willingly fragmented. Clarisse is all that people should be. She is open, observant, inquisitive, thoughtful, engaging with people and nature, and fully alive. As a character, she is certainly the single most influential catalyst that moves Guy Montag toward his transition.

Before attention is given to retired Liberal Arts Professor Faber, it is beneficial to spend some time with Chief Beatty as he gives Montag a brief (but obviously flawed) accounting of the firefighter in American history. At the crux of his lesson, the reader discovers that mass culture resulted in a dumbing down of society as a whole. Mass culture coupled with the sheer speed of life, added with a dominant utilitarian spirit ultimately resulted with many threatened by intellectuals or anything that did not support an egalitarianism that was both the result of and promoted a culture that was dumbed down to the lowest common citizen. Beatty says, “Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” Directly related, is the new place that sports hold within this dumbed down culture. Beatty describes how sports are wonderful because when you watch them “you don’t have to think.” All of this is part of the decline in literacy. Beatty’s description of the drop in reading is both quantitative and qualitative in nature. So the theme of antiintellectualism is explored yet again. In “The Fireman,” the chief there says, “Intellectual, became a swear word.”

In one of the most poignant moments in the novel, Chief Beatty, as social critic, lays out his case of the ignorant, antiintellectual populace. “Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

It is the hardened old fire chief who holds the view that book burning was not the result of a political move from the left or right, but was the result of public apathy. Beatty’s view is also echoed by Professor Faber, “The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” At this point, the book starkly poses the question of whether, should culture go the way of the antiintellectual world of Fahrenheit 451, anyone could argue that all reading and all study would not also suffer in this increasingly illiterate and alliterate society.

One of the most neglected characters in this work, which should not surprise us, is Professor Faber. Faber functions as a potential guide from the modern cave. While most of the people in this dystopian world are held captive by the shadows and daily distractions, Faber sees what is really happening. Unlike the masses who talk trivial things, the reader sees something totally different in Faber. “I don’t talk things, sir,” said Faber. “I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know that I’m alive.”

As Clarisse is a lover of life and all the enjoyable experiences that the senses can give, Faber is a man that loves the look and even the smell of books. For Faber the value of books is that within the good ones there resides “. . . infinite detail and awareness.” Faber continues and explains that “The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Faber attempts to convey to Montag why books are important. Faber describes that three things are missing in their world. He asserts that books “have quality” and that is gone. By this, Faber means a kind of detail that gives both understanding and meaning to life. Another thing missing is leisure. It goes to reason that without the leisure to read books, the possible good that comes with books will be absent. Faber does distinguish between leisure and the abundance of diversions that humans engage in to fill life’s boredoms. The third element necessary for books to be able to help society is “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.” Fundamentally, Faber’s humane formula looks like this: books are part of the whole of human experience, that given authentic leisure and the ability to act on the interaction between quality and leisure, the fully living human being and society would benefit.

Cultural historian Jacques Barzun, in a 2000 interview with Charlie Rose, addressed the question of the value of a liberal arts education that is specifically grounded in the Great Books and the Great Tradition of the West. Barzun responded as follows:

“Properly taught, and learned—acquired—a liberal education awakens and keeps alive the imagination. By the imagination, I don’t mean fanciful things, but I mean the capacity to see beyond the end of your nose and beyond the object in front you. That is to see its implications, its origins, its potential, its danger, its charm. All the things that enable one to navigate in this difficult and complex world with a modicum of wisdom, with calm, not be alarmed with every little thing that happens and with resources that in moments of stress, and after retirement, in illness, and loneliness keep one’s soul and body alive.”

In the 2003 foreword to the Simon and Schuster Classic Edition of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury commented, “There remains only to mention the prediction that my Fire Chief, Beatty, made in 1953, halfway through my book. It has to do with books being burned without matches or fire. Because you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with nonreaders, nonlearners, nonknowers? If the world wide-screen-basketballs and -footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beattys are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader. If the primary grades suffer meltdown and vanish through the cracks in ventilators of the schoolroom, who, after a while, will know or care? Who will know or care, indeed?”  

Robert M. Woods is Director of the Great Books Honors College at Faulkner University, serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, and is a speaker for the National Endowments for the Arts Big Read on Fahrenheit 451. Robert is also working on a book length study of Fahrenheit 451.

A symposium on Fahrenheit 451. Robert M. Woods looks at Anti-Intellectualism and Authentic Learning in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451