George Bernard Shaw had a word or two to say about book censorship: “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
That hasn’t prevented the CCEA obediently following the promptings of Mike Nesbitt and his party that the teaching guide with the Carnegie-Medal-winning novel Bog Child be taken off the syllabus, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever. Why was Mike so annoyed with it? Well let the man speak for himself:
“How dare the Department of Education ask pupils to put themselves in the shoes of hunger strikers! What about the shoes of the prison warders who had to carry out their jobs during dirty protests and hunger strikes, constantly having to endure the whispered death threats from inmates directed at their wives and children? What about the prison officers who were murdered?”
I think Mike has a point there. In fact, it’s a well-worn strategy in English teaching to ask pupils to put themselves in the shoes of some of the characters in a book. So yes, it would be an idea to have children empathise with the prison warders as well as the hunger strikers. In fact I thought that was what we all were supposed to do, schoolchildren or not - walk a mile in the other guy's shoes.
On the other hand I’m deeply uneasy about the direct intervention of a politician in how a subject should be taught. Teachers and curriculum devisers are presumably chosen because of their expertise in their field. You might as well ask a ditch-digger or a dentist to judge on the adequacy or otherwise of a teaching strategy as ask a politician. In fact the ditch-digger or dentist would be better placed to judge, since they’d be less likely to have a political agenda.
There are people who are contemptuous of Mike Nesbitt. I’m not. As a person I think Mike is generally calm and articulate and reasonable. But with this intervention he has shown bad judgement and set an appalling precedent. What next? Strike Yeats’s poem Easter 1916 off the curriculum for appearing to empathise with the revolutionaries? Or should that be ‘murdering terrorists’?
Shaw had another comment on censorship: “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship”. Maybe the teaching guidelines writer got off lightly.