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You want to ban novels in schools that contain sex? Hello, 1960s Ireland

There has been controversy about the book Noughts & Crosses being on the Junior Cert curriculum. The description of passionate young love, later sex and (hang on to your seats) an abortion all speaks to things that young adults are likely to encounter in their lives, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE BAN THIS Sick Filth brigade came out on one of their favourite forums recently, the Joe Duffy show, to decry a novel called Noughts & Crosses.

It features on the Junior Cert syllabus and was likened to 50 Shades of Grey for its explicit recounting of sexual activity (“fornication” as we like to call it) among two teenagers.

Is it any wonder, asked a concerned mother, that we have one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world (we don’t, incidentally) if our children are being exposed to this kind of thing in schools?

Shouldn’t children be allowed to be children and ride bicycles and kick footballs and be kept away from all the smut and sweat and realities of adult life?

If it’s challenging, it’s good

The moment someone suggests that an expression of thought be suppressed I tend to automatically believe that the forces of good in the world should move to see it more widely distributed than ever before. Be it a book or a play or a song or anything else, if it challenges people then it is fundamentally good.

It might be the stupidest idea you ever heard or the most gratuitously smutty book you ever read, but the fact that it provokes a reaction in you leading to further critical thought as to why you agree or disagree with the premise is, by its definition, a mind expanding experience.

One of the great criticisms of our secondary school system and the two state exams it typically foists upon our young adults is that it is an exercise in rote learning and regurgitation rather than the development of critical thought.

Even the analysis pieces expected of students can be learned as bullet points more so than as a new way of thinking. We leave the critical thought development to college and maybe the odd teacher who finds the time and space between syllabus learning items to stop and have an aul think about the material being covered.

The bright students might take in the meanings of King Lear, but most of them just want to get through the damned exercise and achieve the requisite points to go on and do whatever it is their hearts desire. The system is a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself as a mind expanding exercise.

Books that speak to teenagers 

It is ironic that when the Department of Education introduces alongside the old classics some contemporary material that is designed to speak to the teenagers who will consume it, we hear uproar.

Let’s get back to the classics (until one day a mother rings in and exclaims, “I can hardly bear to describe what that Greek fella did with his own mother, Joe!”)

A description of teenagers engaging in fornication in the here and now?! Smut, Joe. Pure Smut. I mean, there’s very little risk of them murdering their way to the top after a bit of Shakespeare, but frankly, it’s a wonder they don’t start going at it in the canteen at lunch after reading the contemporary stuff.


The bigger the moral panic that follows a book around, the more likely it is to be touching on a raw nerve that requires exploration. Noughts & Crosses doesn’t just focus on teenage sex – it’s quite a small part of the whole thing, as a matter of interest.

But the description of passionate young love, later sex and (hang on to your seats) an abortion, all speaks to things that young adults are likely to encounter in their lives.

Another controversial writer for young adults, Judy Blume, has been on the receiving end of hate mail since her books from the 1970s onward started talking about things like teenage girls masturbating and having (no, really, grip the seat good and tight now) periods.

The talk of fornication 

The line that children should be children and left to their innocence has been bandied around about as long as the line attributed to Socrates about them lacking manners and loving luxury.

Teenagers have sex, and if they’re not having it today, then they will be soon. The era of sweeping it all under the carpet worked out really well, didn’t it, when we had quick sweaty encounters and Magdalene Laundries to clean up the mess.

Even when we got past the laundries as our go-to solution, I recall growing up in an era when some teenagers genuinely thought a can of 7up would do the trick if other suitable prophylactics weren’t available.

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But no, let’s sweep it all under the carpet and prefer to live in a world where we believe they’re out there, running around kicking a ball and cycling a bike and giving no thought at all to one another.

The realities and challenges they will face 

Our school children should be provided with material that speaks to their actual realities and the challenges they face. They should be given an opportunity to think about the material and put it in context of their own lives.

Sure, the old classics have a role to play. They’re great stories with deep meaning. But a 14-year-old probably doesn’t care as much or can’t engage at the same level as with a novel written in a contemporary age about contemporary experiences.

We also should not be afraid to challenge people in our schools. Challenge them not just with descriptions of sex, but with material relating to our history; to drug abuse; to the lives of people less fortunate and the harsh realities of life that any of us can fall victim to when we leave the cosseted world of school.

Someone will always object, and they can take their kids out of a class if they so desire. But the majority of us must understand, I hope, that it is better to shock and to demand of our young adults some critical thought in reaction to material they are presented with, not just dusty old poems to learn off by heart along with condensed analysis points for regurgitation in an exam hall.

More sex. More drugs. More violence. More shock. More horror. More beauty. More contemplation.

Our schools need more of all of it, and most of all it needs to feed young minds more to think about.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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