“Woke Book Burning”: Anger as classics “quietly” dropped from curriculum, citing BLM

There has been a strong reaction online to the revelation that the National Curriculum authority for schools have “quietly” dropped modern classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird from prescribed reading list for students, citing concerns from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Former literary correspondent for the Irish Times, the late Eileen Battersby, wrote in 2015 that To Kill a Mockingbird was an undisputed classic assured of a timeless, international appeal. It is a “beloved novel and one of those prescribed texts that no one minds reading for an exam,” she said.

The novel is widely hailed as a masterpiece and has been praised for its exploration of racism and civil rights in America. Racist segregationists even tried to have it banned. Now, it seems, a banning of sorts is being achieved against a novel which was always understood as having a strong anti-racist message.

In its report on texts prescribed for the Junior Cert, the NCCA says that decisions on the books prescribed in schools were being made in a “particular context”.

“In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, the prescribed lists for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate English came under increasing scrutiny for diversity and representation,” it claimed.

“Traditional texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were widely questioned in the media for their representation of race. In 2021, a different social media campaign questioned the morality and suitability of certain texts on the prescribed lists.”

RTE reporter Emma O’Kelly noted that the NCCA had “quietly” dropped To Kill a Mockingbird from its prescribed list of books for Junior Cert.

The new list shows that other modern classics such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and George Orwell’s Animal Farm have also been culled, while two new entrants are novels by two black female writers, Elizabeth Acedevo and Esi Edugyan.

Free speech advocate, Keith Redmond, wrote that the booklists were getting the “Woke Book Burning treatment”.

Commentator Paddy Manning also opposed the changes and slammed the NCCA as “pathetic wannabe-woke civil servants”.

The book was described as “one of the strongest anti-racist, anti-bigotry pieces of literature ever produced,” by another critic of the decision.

Others have pointed to the enduring messages of the novel regarding acceptance and empathy.

The NCCA said it had commissioned research by Dr Bethan Marshall, King’s College, London on the role and purpose of prescribed text lists in other jurisdictions

Marshall’s report quoted from a 2020 piece by E.E. Thomas which claimed that To Kill a Mockingbird was questionable from a black students’ point of view even though it was “ostensibly anti-racist” because the novel had a “so-called ‘white saviour’”.

She said that the Black Lives Matter movement “heightened awareness of the need for post-colonial perspectives in schools, and broader so-called ‘culture wars’ have once again brought these questions to prominence”.

It seems unlikely that the wider public, or parents of school students, share the NCCA’s concerns regarding the book, since polls have shown the book remains a firm favourite.

However, Labour’s Áodhán Ó Riordáin has previously called for the book to be culled from the prescribed book list, while Councillor Alan Lawes put forward a motion to Meath County Council to have the novel – and Steinback’s Of Mice and Men – removed from the school curriculum.

In an interview with Classic FM, Lawes admitted to host Niall Boylan that he hadn’t read the books. “I knew of the books but I haven’t read them,” he said.

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