Donald Clarke: Kick that deviant Shakespeare off the Leaving Cert

What kind of misguided puritan can find ‘no moral learning’ in The Handmaid’s Tale?

The Handmaid’s Tale: Yes, it’s supposed to be disturbing

The Handmaid’s Tale: Yes, it’s supposed to be disturbing

 

I don’t approve of placing films on the English literature syllabus (in the unlikely event I were consulted, I would allow screenplays). But, if we must thus blur the disciplines, the Department of Education could do worse than put Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams the way of students. It’s a lovely movie and features an excellent scene in which an archetypal concerned parent gets her perm in a twist about the filth being taught to innocent children. 

Amy Madigan initially sits calmly in the school board meeting while the mother eviscerates a book we suspect to be modelled on The Catcher in the Rye. Eventually Amy stands up to ask whether the woman lived through the 1960s. She says she did. “No. I think you had two ’50s, and moved right on to the ’70s,” our hero snaps.

Back in 1989, when Field of Dreams was released, Irish moralists would have had to work hard to get aggrieved about the material on the English curriculum. But it seems we are now living in a wider simulacrum of that amusing scene. This week it was revealed that more than 40 complaints had been received about books being studied by Junior Cert and Leaving Cert English students. 

The reports made much of whinges about Emma Donoghue’s Room and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter novel, one of the great feminist texts of the past half-century, was described as being “nothing but sadistic, upsetting and of no moral learning”. Another email, released to this newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act, described material on the reading lists as “offensive, abhorrent and clearly unsuitable for minors”. 

If you want more of this stuff, make your way to the blog Irish Parents Review English Curriculum. The contributing mums and dads are tolerant of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but little else gets a clean bill of health. Just listen to the filthy content in John Carney’s film Sing Street. “A piece of graffiti in the background reads: ‘I rode your Ma!’ … A teenage character says: ‘Lick my balls’ … ‘a mother is seen putting batteries into a dildo,’ ” we read. “ ‘Ride me sideways’ was another one,” Mrs Doyle from Father Ted might have added.

Here is where we wearily pull on the robes of fair play and confirm, with as much sincerity as we can muster, that parents – indeed, all citizens – have every right to express their views about the content in educational curriculums. And others have the right to wave those complaints away. 

The most exhausting and unconvincing genre of whinge drafts children into the indictment. “I asked my daughter what she thought of the dirty book,” someone I’ve made up writes. “And she agreed with me that it was disgraceful, unnecessary and ungodly.” One can’t help but imagine poor little Aoife nodding along obediently as she attempts to get back to her bedroom and her Spotify playlist of sexually explicit Cardi B songs. Be honest. What would you say?

Censoriousness does not come from the Christian right alone. The recent decision by James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird due to its “use of the N-word and . . . the white saviour motif” demonstrates a differently worrying class of puritanism. But the vanguard is likely to remain those who, in Amy Madigan’s terms, lived through the 1950s twice (or however we define the contemporary equivalent).

There is, among these arguments, a perennial inability to grasp that representation does not imply endorsement. It is hard to imagine anyone coming away from The Handmaid’s Tale with a desire to emulate the oppression of women there epicted. It is plainly nonsense to suggest that the book offers “no moral learning”. The temptation to cheaply point at Shakespeare is particularly irresistible in a year that finds King Lear sitting beside Room and The Handmaid’s Tale on the curriculum. I studied that play for the Leaving Cert 40 years ago and have not yet been tempted to pluck out any eyes in the gruesome manner Cornwall and Regan demonstrate in act three.

Yes, some of the events depicted in the disputed texts are upsetting. They are supposed to be upsetting. If it is worth pondering the prevalence of misogyny in society then, as Atwood does in The Handmaid’s Tale, it is worth imagining its hyperbolic extremes. Few of the arguments in the published complaints clarify what deleterious effect such material is supposed to have on young people. There are allegations they will be “desensitised”. But these students – many not all that young – are also supposed to be “disturbed” by the material. Can those two things go together?

The real fear is, perhaps, that students will cope perfectly adequately and will escape the constraining cultural prejudices of their parents. In short, the worry is they will grow up. It comes to most of us in the end, and it’s preferable to the alternative.

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