Black Marks All Round


Bill Boyd on censorship, curriculum and citizenship.

Away back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when I was a young and idealistic Head of English in a secondary school, I was taken aback when a story reached me of an act of censorship for which I was not prepared. Our headteacher, with whom I had a good relationship, had been driving across the country the previous weekend when he chanced upon a radio discussion about ‘Forever’, Judy Blume’s novel for young teens. The book was apparently sexually explicit (it isn’t really) and was causing quite a stir. The following day he happened to walk into a class where one of the girls was reading the book, demanded that she hand it over, and returned it to the library with the instruction that it should be removed from the shelves. Word quickly got round, and within a few weeks there was hardly a girl, and very few boys, who hadn’t read it.

As an English teacher, you expect to challenge young people in their reading and you expect them to challenge themselves, within safe limits. Sometimes you might even expect to have to defend your choices to parents or the wider community. It comes with the territory, and it is part of developing the consensus of acceptability. What you don’t expect, is to be undermined by the very person who should be leading the charge for independent thinking and freedom of expression.

There were so many worrying aspects of the story of the Scottish headteacher who was in the news last week for banning the award-winning drama ‘Black Watch’ in her school, but none more so than the response of the local authority. Even as parents were demanding their children’s rights to study the play, which appears on the SQA’s list of recommended drama texts, an Angus Council spokesperson insisted that there was in fact no ban, and that the class had simply ‘chosen to study another text’.

‘Move along please; nothing to see here’, would have been just as convincing, and would at least have provided some comic relief.

Of the headteacher herself we learn very little, other than reports of her ‘evangelical beliefs’, an expression made to set alarm bells ringing if ever there was one, with one national newspaper describing the reasons for the censorship as ‘sexual content’ and ‘bad language’. I’m assuming on that basis that Shakespeare wouldn’t even get a look in. It is difficult to imagine the sexual content which would be shocking or new to young people with Google at their disposal, and ‘bad language’ is one of those journalistic clichés which presumably means ‘inappropriate language’.

The banning of books is not new of course, particularly in those parts of the world where religious puritanism still has a strong grip. Perhaps Jane Esson has friends in Kansas, where last week also the State Senate approved a bill which would allow prosecutors to bring charges to teachers and school administrators for assigning or distributing materials judged harmful to students . The bill was introduced by the Republican state senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who says it is necessary to prevent the distribution of pornography in schools, a situation which ‘has not previously arisen’, while fellow Republican, senator Joseph Scapa, cited as an example of pornography a novel by Nobel Literature winner Toni Morrison, proving apparently that he is well-read and not-very-well-read at the same time.

I haven’t seen Black Watch but my guess is that the language is entirely appropriate, and not half as shocking as actually killing people, or, for example, dismantling historic Scottish regiments for political reasons while pretending that it’s in the best interests of the nation’s security. Perhaps we should be appointing headteachers who will be evangelical in making sure our young people are seekers of truth and justice.

One of the four key purposes of Curriculum for Excellence is to ensure that our young people  develop into ‘responsible citizens’. Some people believe that the way to do that is to tell them how to behave and how to speak, and to provide them with moral absolutes. Appropriately enough, the study of great literature teaches them that there is no such thing, and that the best you can do is to keep an open mind and think for yourself.

Comments (12)

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  1. Monty says:

    From my admittedly limited experience of working in schools the problem is generally parents complaining about texts they don’t approve of including a few complaints about Edwin Morgan poems. This generally ends up with the regrettable situation of the complainer’s offspring being sent to the library for the duration of the offending lesson and a minor stooshie in the local paper who lap this sort of thing up. I do think though that Black Watch is a bit overrated

  2. literacyadviser says:

    Reblogged this on Bill Boyd – The Literacy Adviser.

  3. Soldierwhy says:

    You haven’t seen it? Clearly the youngsters can Google better than you. 😉

  4. gbrown057 says:

    Having seen Black Watch twice, once in the company of my 90 year old mother, I can report that the language is much milder than the average secondary school “playground”, and that the content is milder than King Lear. My mum thought it was brilliant.

  5. Darien says:

    I doubt Black Watch is allowed in private schools. Maybe the head teacher in question should be there?

  6. ELAINE FRASER says:

    I have seen the play more than once ,first with my two older children . I thought it was very powerful and despite the strong language when my third child was in my view old enough and the play returned I bought him a ticket and he went with his much older brother. I think with my youngest I would have been uncomfortable watching it with him . It may be true that the language of the playground is as strong ( personally I try not to generalise about all kids behaving the same) but it can often be more restrained at home with parents or in school in front of teachers. I did find the language shocking and Im wondering how it would have read out loud in a classroom . Possible excruciating for some though not others. Someone who hasn’t seen the play shouldn’t really be going on about having an ‘open mind’ and ‘seekers of truth’ . Some parents are clearly unhappy and wanted their children to do this particular play perhaps others were relieved their kids were not being asked to read expletives out loud in class or even more uncomfortable revising/ memorising with parents numerous quotes for essay writing in exams .

    1. Frederick Robinson says:

      Elaine Fraser: Good for you a propos ‘someone who hasn’t seen the play etc.’

  7. Robert Alexander says:

    The local councillor is the arch Tory major Procter x black watch and heid bummer in the black watch association. Angus is the recruiting ground for the black watch and this play is anti war. The head teacher who thought it more important to attend a performance of the wizard of oz rather than meet with parents concerned with this censorship. She is also an evangelical, not a Muslim evangelical I would bet. It does not take a conspiracy theorist to work this out. The comment by the Angus council mouthpiece is pure waffle,but what else could they say,we censor lessons taking an anti war stance but admit to supporting Rab.alexanderarmed services recruiting in schools.

  8. MoJo says:

    you were making perfect sense till you got to the bit where you said you hadn’t seen Black Watch…..when you undermine your case entirely…..go watch the play – all secondary kids should have the opportunity to see it in my view – and then debate it in the classroom – including the use of ‘bad’ language….and references to sex never mind war and death, which are all very much part of the real world….how can kids be expected to develop critical thinking if they are not exposed to these issues in a supported environment while they are young with adults who are prepared to give them space to explore them , not suppress and censor them…..

  9. My main gripe with ‘Black Watch’ is the complete absence of any mention of the regimental mutiny not long after it was formed:

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