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Today I taught a Forbidden Poem. A piece of writing deemed so offensive by a select group of people that a few years ago teachers were told to literally tear up every book that contained it. The government removed this poem from the English syllabus across an entire country, meaning that no student would ever be able to study it in class.


I’m being a little disingenuous. This poem isn’t actually forbidden in my country, but if I drove one hundred miles south into England then it would be. The Scottish and English education systems are very different, and the English system requires students to study a selection of “set texts” for English Literature. Their knowledge of some of these texts will then be tested in their final exam. In 2008, one of these set texts suddenly found itself in the national news when a group of concerned citizens complained about it. The poem is called Education for Leisure and was written by the UK’s current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.


Duffy is a Scot who writes poems that explore the darker areas of British society. She has used the word “dispossessed” to describe many of the characters in her poem, and her works are frequently taught to high school students due to their subject matters and their accessibility. Education for Leisure is a monologue delivered by a nameless young person who describes their feelings of isolation and who appears to be involved in a growing cycle of boredom and violent behaviour. The poem ends with the lines “I get our bread knife and go out. / The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.” The implication, of course, is that the character is about to do something rather unpleasant to you with said bread knife.


The poem itself is (as the poet has explained many times) a commentary upon how a certain type of young person can find themselves isolated and disconnected from education and from the society in which they live, and how that can lead to a cycle of increasingly antisocial behaviour. It was written at the height of Thatcherism in the UK, at a time when many working class teenagers were struggling to make any sort of way in the world.


It is not, I hope you would agree, an encouragement to go out and stab someone. In 2008 a complaint was lodged with the English exam board and this complaint quickly escalated into a concerted campaign of outrage. Certain people in certain parts of English society felt that the content of Education for Leisure, particularly the “bread knife” line, would encourage young people to go out and commit similar crimes. After a bit a hullaballoo, the poem was banned from the English curriculum.


Carol Ann Duffy’s response to all this was excellent, by the way. Instead of making a public statement, she wrote a poem. It’s called Mrs Schofield’s GSCE Lesson. Mrs Schofield is, of course, the person who first complained.


I’ve been using this poem with a class of 15-16 year old pupils this week and they have absolutely loved it. We’ve had some superb discussions about the character and about what their life might be like. We’ve been able to do some very nice literary analysis, which is especially pleasing given that the class in question isn’t the most academic I’ve ever had. We’ve been able to talk openly about issues surrounding knife violence – an extremely serious and sensitive issue in the UK, given our near-total lack of guns. More than anything, I’ve been able to make some teenagers actually enjoy reading poetry. It genuinely depresses me that my colleagues south of the border are prevented from doing this, just because Revered Lovejoy’s wife wanted everyone to Please Think Of The Children.


By the way, please watch UK television actor Russell Tovey’s amazing dramatic reading of the poem. It’s absolutely chilling and left some of my students open-mouthed.


Are there any texts that are (or have previously been) banned in your school or college?


Why were they banned?


What do you feel about the idea of censoring what a teacher can or cannot teach to a class?


What do you think about Education for Leisure? Is its ban justified?


The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons.

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Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

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