If a more vivid and startling opening exists in an essay than the sentence beginning George Orwell’s “Marrakech,” I don’t know it:
“As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.”
This and the two paragraphs that follow describe with vivid plainness a quotidian horror of a kind that often provoked Orwell to keen thinking about mankind under conditions that he thought could be bettered, but were not. Marrakech led Orwell to wonder why people in fortunate circumstances tend to think of those “beneath” them in dehumanizing ways: “Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects?”
This use of a mass noun (stuff) to describe people who should qualify as individuals was startling in 1939. How things have change since then is evident from the lack of surprise that greeted a recent report on American education, which referred to students as human capital—as, really, just another kind of brown stuff. Is it any surprise that in an ambience of acceptance like this, the de-individuation of students implicit in the MOOC and “blended learning” models of education is gaining ground?