Teaching “A Modest Proposal”

A Modest ProposalI enjoy teaching “A Modest Proposal.” I think in many cases it’s the first time students have been introduced to satire on that level. Sometimes my students are appalled at Swift for even suggesting such a thing—and that’s the point, isn’t it? To be appalled?

I don’t do anything magical when I teach it, and it’s certainly not creative or new, but maybe sharing what I do will help along someone whose never taught it before, and others of you who do fun things with it—feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

First, I think you need to introduce the concept of satire. I share an article from The Onion without telling students that’s where it’s from. You can take your pick, but one of my history teacher friends gave me this one that she has used for DBQ’s in AP European History: “Industrial Revolution Provides Millions of Out-of-Work Children with Jobs.” The themes of both this article and Swift’s essay are similar—the exploitation of children for the benefit of adults, the loss of childhood innocence, harsh conditions for children.

Read the article and generate discussion. Ask students if they agree with it. They’ll probably say no. Ask why. What’s wrong with it? If they don’t figure out it’s satire, you need to lead them toward that conclusion. Then ask them to generate a definition for satire based on their understanding of what it is. Compare that definition to the one provided by your book or dictionary of literary terms. Ask what is the point of satire? Why not just present the problem and the solution in a realistic way? Why not just directly present an issue? What does satire accomplish? Have them list forms of satire they’re familiar with—mine shared mostly TV, but some of your students will know about The Onion or maybe even M.A.D. Magazine.

Next we look at the argument The Onion article made by analyzing the subject, occasion, audience, purpose, and speaker. I use the acronym SOAPS. Subject: What is this article about? Occasion: Why was it written? What is going on at the time that the author is mocking? Audience: Who is this article aimed at? Purpose: What does the author hope to achieve by writing it? and Speaker: How does the author establish himself/herself as an authority on the subject?

My students told me that the subject was children working in the industrial revolution. The occasion was the current economy and large number of out-of-work adults—they felt perhaps the author was drawing attention to the fact that times have been worse. Audience they felt could be virtually anyone living through our current tough economy. They felt the purpose was to give the reader historical perspective, to think about the difficult lives of children in the past. Finally, they felt using quotes from fake historians and the overall tone of the article established the speaker as someone to listen to. Of course, we talked about the rhetorical triangle in context of this analysis, too.

After we analyze The Onion article, we begin “A Modest Proposal.” I think the vocabulary is fairly difficult, so I read it in class with students. We stop and talk to clarify and define vocabulary. After reading the first few paragraphs, before Swift makes his proposal, I ask students what they think he will suggest. How would they solve poverty and hunger? They offer suggestions, and no one in my class at least thought of cannibalizing babies. After reading and discussing the entire essay and analyzing it as we did The Onion article, discussing the article’s effectiveness in drawing attention to the issue, discussing some of Swift’s better barbs, and in particular, drawing attention to the paragraph in which Swift reveals several reasonable solutions to the problems—taxing absentee landlords, manufacturing luxury goods in Great Britain, etc.—I suggest students write their own modest proposal modeled after Swift’s. It’s not the most creative assignment; I did the same assignment myself in high school, so I know I’m not the first person to come up with it. However, it remains my favorite assignment from high school, and I think it gives students free rein to go kind of crazy with their writing and still exercise persuasive writing skills.

We start by generating a list of social issues. Students should think of an outlandish solution to that problem. They should include a paragraph like Swift’s in which they introduce solutions that are actually reasonable and workable only to explain why the reader should not speak to the writer of such untenable solutions. Swift’s essay makes an excellent model for how to proceed. Students may need to do some research about their issue, too. Students usually have a lot of fun with this essay, but it’s also a great assignment for teaching rhetoric and argumentative writing.

Oh, and I still remember what I wrote about for my own essay in high school. Some of you older teachers remember the garbage barge full of NYC trash that had no place to dump? It was an issue in the news when I was in high school. Well, if we have no place to dump our trash, we should dump it in developing countries. Perhaps the toxicity of living with our trash would cause the inhabitants to die off, solving two problems in one: we would have a place for our trash, and we could stop supplying aid to developing countries and use the money for ourselves (preferably luxury goods).

Creative Commons License photo credit: Charlie & Kasie Bennett

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