Thursday, November 3, 2011

Modest Proposals: The Power of Satire

This is not the first semester that I taught Jonathan's Swift's "A Modest Proposal." It is a piece I thoroughly enjoy giving to students. They are horrified and shocked by the nonchalant way that Swift goes about calling for the killing and eating of babies. Sometimes, they are uncertain as to whether or not Swift is making a legitimate proposal. Not everyone realizes it is satire from the get-go.

Students don't usually get a chance to interact with satire in academia. Everything here is so serious. The one piece of satire my students recalled having read is Animal Farm, which is far less humorous than Swift's piece. My students had a great discussion about the piece, though. They laid out what made the piece effective or ineffective, found passages, and used history to think about the piece. Without being prompted, discussion about activism emerged, as well as commentary on the rhetorical triangle. I was impressed. 

And, as we figured out, satire is all around them, and it is often more effective than serious, direct approaches. The things that go viral these days are often satiric parodies of today's celebrities or hot button political issues. They create awareness rather than directly calling for action. They show people the ridiculousness of the little things that they take seriously. At the same time, satire asks writers to be aware of their audience and meticulous about their research.

So, today, as in semesters before, I asked students to write their own satires. This is something that they will probably never do in another class, though, as we discovered, satire is an effective means of activist writing. People gravitate towards humor and things that undermine authority. The results were creative and funny. I heard some laughs as they wrote. 

What I hadn't considered, however, is that some of them said that they felt bad about the things that they were writing. My response was  a simple, "don't worry about it. It's supposed to be awful." What I really should have explained was the way that the terrible words yield results, how they aren't genuine feelings, and how they make others realize how awful they have been. This was definitely a teachable moment where I failed.

Of course, I would never ask my students to do anything I wouldn't do, so as they wrote, I wrote my own "Modest Proposal" right along with them. Here it is: 

A Modest Proposal for the Crisis in Education

Fellow Americans, I write to you today to propose a solution to the current crisis in education. Education is the foundation of our capitalist nation. It is the spring board to better jobs. Though many have tried to promote education reform in this nation, all have failed because their schemes are too elaborate or else too simple. It is a costly failure, seeing as education expenses run our country close to $600 billion a year. But never fear! I have the solution, the one that will solve all of our problems.

 Though many students enjoy learning, many are simply there to be babysat while their parents go off to work; they hate being there. The parents don’t care anymore about the children’s education than the children do. They just need somewhere for the children to go while they work so they do not have to pay for day care. I propose, then, a simple fix. Those students who are disruptive, showing apathy towards their education, or doing poorly in their studies will be sent off to labor camps during the day. Not only will this ensure that the best and the brightest get the most of their schooling without being dragged down by their lower quality peers, but the productivity of these laboring children will pay the nation’s education costs, slashing taxes, minimizing class sizes, increasing the ability to purchase resources, and adding to the pool of available scholarships for college-bound students. Plus, the laborers will find their experience rewarding, knowing that they are contributing to the good of the peers and nation as a whole, and find pleasure in doing hands-on activities.

In order to pass this legislation, we simply would have to do away with the No Child Left Behind Act, which many states are already reconsidering anyway, and do away with child labor laws. This would be a fairly easy thing to do, seeing as anyone with a solid view of education would fully support this move.

Of course, all students will have the opportunity to attend kindergarten to assess their aptitude for learning. If students have not learned the alphabet or mastered shoe-tying, then they shall begin labor in the first grade. As the grades progress, students who fail to meet the standards or who become pests in the classroom will be cut, just as they are during team try outs. If they aren’t practicing and exercising their brains, then they aren’t fit to be in school. Labor ends at eighteen, at which point, children become adults and are encouraged to find occupations.

In the end, students will be even more motivated to do well in school if they are opposed to physical labor. This will guarantee those students who are intellectually-motivated are the ones to whom who teachers are giving their time and attention.

The plan is easy to initiate. Firstly, before students have produced enough revenue to create public workspaces, laborers can use school auditoriums and gyms, or even general play spaces, such as schoolyards, unused practice fields, or the like as places of production.

Secondly, production will be arranged by grade, so that no child gets more than he is able to physically handle. First graders will create small things such as shoe laces, while older high-school-aged students will do harder tasks such as welding, mechanics, and heavy lifting.

Thirdly, each marking period, the best workers in the district will be rewarded with a small bonus check to take home to mom and dad, much like the best students earn merit awards or certificates.

As a doctoral student, I have very little gain from this proposal. I have already gone through the ranks of education and would see no enhancement to my own education. If this plan seems to benefit me, it is only because of the great gains that this plan would offer to our nation as a whole. It would be an investment in the future for us all.

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