The high school Advanced Placement English class had an assignment: Write a paper mimicking Jonathan Swift’s satirical “A Modest Proposal” of the 1700s. The teacher called for the teenage students to closely follow the seminal text in which Swift called for poor mothers of Ireland to sustain themselves during a famine by selling their babies to wealthier families.
“A young healthy child well nursed,” Swift wrote, “is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.” In its historical context, it was biting satire aimed at criticizing the British devaluation of Irish lives.
A student in the North County High School class who turned in a version of his own, modern “modest proposal” — satirically suggesting the eradication of all but a few black Americans — has stoked racial tensions in Anne Arundel County, Md., after his essay circulated on social media extolling the virtues of “corralling said Negroes back to the Sahara desert, and using a high-ordnance nuclear missile to wipe the cesspool of filth some call a ‘race’ from the earth.”
Julie Cares, principal of North County, sent a letter home Tuesday to parents addressing the essay, which was written and submitted by a 17-year-old junior who is white.
“Just as one could argue that the content of Swift’s piece was ill-advised and insensitive, such is the case with the content of the student’s piece here,” Cares wrote. “I want you to know emphatically that North County High School embraces and supports all students, with no exceptions. Conversations around sensitive topics such as this, however, are critical to our growth as a school and, ultimately, as a society.”
Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that the school system is investigating the incident and has yet to determine if any disciplinary action is appropriate.
Mosier said that the essay began circulating among students and that parents brought concerns about the essay to school officials. Mosier said that teachers in Advanced Placement language and composition classes commonly give students the assignment to copy Swift’s style with their own “Modest Proposal.”
“The topic chosen by this student was clearly insensitive and clearly ill-advised and has created feelings of anger, frustration, concern and consternation among students and staff,” Mosier said.
While the assignment specifically called for satire, the student’s words were alarming enough to spark an investigation to determine if, in fact, the student meant to imitate Swift’s grotesque way of making a point or whether the overtly offensive language was linked to something fundamentally racist and perhaps dangerous. Mosier said the county schools are taking the concerns about the essay seriously and sent administrators to North County to speak with students about the essay.
Mosier noted that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was originally made in jest and that Swift knew “it was a ridiculous proposal.”
The teacher who assigned the paper did not respond to a request for comment; the student who wrote the paper also did not respond to a request for comment, and a woman who answered a phone number listed for the student’s mother declined to comment. The Washington Post is not identifying the student because he is a minor.
The incident at North County came three months after another white teenager in suburban Maryland was captured in a viral video disparaging black people, whom he said belonged to “an inferior race.” The Mount Hebron High School student’s racist pronouncements led to a demonstration at the school and rebukes from the Howard County administration.
The North County student’s satirical paper caused outrage, Mosier said, for its bombastic language. The student assailed black Americans with a litany of stereotypes and wrote that the few who buck those stereotypes could stay in the country and “keep each other company.”
“I understand that the school is saying that it was an instruction about satire,” Robinson said. “At the same time, I feel like given the times we live in I feel like the teacher should have handed it right back.”