A Maryland high school student followed the instructions on his English assignment to the letter…but it caused major social upheaval at his school. Soon, parents, teachers, and students were all offended, and various sides were demanding various action. Here’s what happened:
Students in an English class were asked to mimic satirist Jonathan Swift’s famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.”
Now, to set the stage, Swift’s work satirically suggested passages included the boiling and eating of poor children in order to rid rich people of the obligation of caring for the poor. This, of course, was certainly not meant to be taken literally. Instead, readers were expected to understand the message beneath the message, that the poor should be honored, respected and cared for, rather than treated with contempt.
This Maryland student, who clearly understood the assignment very well, suggested in his essay that, to solve racism in America, blacks should be shipped to the Sahara. Now, again, this was meant to point out the inequities and hypocrisy in American race relations, both that racism still exists and that people prefer not to deal with it.
So, assignment accomplished, right? Not so fast. People, who clearly did not understand the assignment freaked out. Thus, reflexively, so did the administration, prompting the school district to offer this: “The student chose a subject matter that was clearly insensitive and struck a nerve with students here and staff members here. And so, they have been meeting today where the staff has tried to allow students to express their opinions and say why they’re hurt, why they’re angered.”
Instead of just explaining the assignment to the offended folks, the district chose to listen to their uninformed opinions, thus giving credence to complaints birthed from misunderstanding.
Now, from a PR perspective, it’s a tough wire to walk. You have to educate the children, and some of the concepts you cover, especially in advanced classes, will be over the heads of parents who have not encountered these ideas before. Add to this the likelihood that their children will react not only to the assignment but also to the parents’ upset, and you have a recipe for calamity.
So, is the solution to skip that assignment and let the students continue to escape critical thinking? As an educator, you have to say “no.” But this applies to more than just education. This is true any time you are in the position of having to communicate difficult or controversial information. Preparation is the key. You have to cover your bases … then stick to your guns.
If you are fair, honest, and – most of all – prepared, you can rise above the noise and fight back. Explain the situation and thus, maintain control of the narrative. After your message is established as the dominant narrative, address anger, and offense from a position of control.