Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
April 17, 2016
A Prosaic Proposal
Category: Current Events … Serious

At the high school where I teach an SAT prep course, there's been some controversy over a student essay. Apparently, after reading and analyzing Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," students were assigned to write their own satiric piece -- and one student wrote a piece about racism that a number of students found highly offensive. (Some of those upset students are in my class; before Wednesday's session began, I read the essay and we chatted about it briefly.)

For my part, I don't know that I think the students should be especially offended -- and the essay was clearly within the parameters of the assignment -- but I'm a little bothered by overwhelmingly positive responses to the essay. Apparently the student received an A+ on it, and in general the supporters of the essay in online forums (see the third link, which also contains the student’s essay, below) have failed to understand why, if not horrifically racist, the student's piece just isn't all that impressive. What made "A Modest Proposal" so brilliant is that it a) took an issue that most would agree was problematic (poverty), b) proposed a solution that most would find thoroughly objectionable (eating poor children), and c) employed reasonable arguments to the effect that this solution would be beneficial for *all* parties involved. Never at any point, however, does Swift's argument ever become especially compelling, and its absurdity is amplified as the essay continues.

The student's essay, however, begins with a racist premise -- essentially that black people are what's wrong with America, a ridiculous belief that unfortunately far too many people espouse -- proposes an extreme yet hardly uncommon solution (that black people should go back to Africa and fucking die), and finishes by using "legitimate" statistics and rationale to justify pursuing that course of action. Of course, a high school student isn't going to be on Swift's level, but neither should a student be praised for essentially echoing what one could find shouted at Trump rallies (at least the “send them back to Africa” part) or posted to the front page of the Council of Conservative Citizens website or expressed at length and ad nauseam on the forums. Still, had I been the student's teacher, I would have defended the student against criticisms that his essay was necessarily racist -- his piece was, after all, a legitimate response to the assignment prompt. This is, appropriately, how the school administration seems to be treating the student. (Which is not to say that the student doesn't hold racist beliefs; part of what upset students was that the author has apparently made similarly questionable statements, and not in jest, in the past and on Twitter.) But I would have given him a C+ or a B- at best (because the piece was fairly well written), explained to him why his essay was an uninspired example of satire, and invited him to redo the assignment for a higher grade.

In any case, I certainly wouldn’t remove the assignment from the school’s curriculum. Though it does have the potential to produce offensive material, it also has the potential to teach students a lot about particular issues and rhetoric in general -- provided that the subjects are approached and explored in a thoughtful manner.

Relevant links:

Students Banding Together After Essay Sparks Racial Tension

North County student's satirical essay sparks outrage

Update: This Is The Student’s Controversial Essay Emulating The Satire Of Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

-posted by Wes | 5:44 pm | Comments (0)
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