An assignment given at North County High School has been criticized for inciting racial tensions. An English teacher assigned this task that had students mimic Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s polarizing 1729 satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Consequently, many parents and administrators wish to ban the assignment despite the potential learning experience it evokes.
Now, some background on Swift’s original essay. It was a satirical paper written in order to mock and accost the British public’s unsympathetic attitude towards impoverished, specifically Irish, people. His argument was to sell Irish babies to the rich in order to cannibalize them and provide some financial stability to their destitute parents.
This obviously offended sensibilities and caused outrage in many, despite the fact Swift never seriously wanted his ideas to come to pass. His purpose in writing such dubious statements was to challenge the British to acknowledge their own prejudices and cruelty towards the Irish people.
Swift’s essay has been taught in classes repeatedly over the centuries. Its meaning has never been lost as there is always an oppressed class wherever and whenever in history, including the present.
A North County High School Advanced Placement English class was teaching “A Modest Proposal” when the class was assigned the task to imitate Swift’s style in their own modest proposal.
The cause of the controversy at hand was a white student who wrote about eradicating the black population in America through a nuclear missile attack. This version was worded with more explicit violence and offensive racial epithets than that of Swift’s essay, and although some of his language was not necessary, the student indeed followed the assignment.
It is entirely understandable why people were both offended and upset by the student’s words, as the statements are, when taken out of the context of satire, offensive and upsetting. However, that has always been the point of satire, specifically the essence of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
The question that both “A Modest Proposal” and this high schooler’s essay bring up is: if it isn’t okay to cannibalize or commit genocide on a group of people, why should it be then be okay to oppress and selectively kill that same population?
In Swift’s case, he was referring to England starving and consistently subjugating the Irish population on more than one occasion resulting in many deaths. In this high schooler’s case, he was referring to the actions that occur toward African Americans throughout the entire country, specifically close to us here in Baltimore.
Police brutality, food deserts in mostly black populated cities, the “black tax,” job discrimination, etc.; all realities of 21st century America and all criticized through satire by the essay written.
The assignment shouldn’t be banned just to appease constant political correctness, but should be used in order to open a dialogue on race relations and oppression in America.