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Is It Time for 'Huck Finn' to Go?

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A high school English teacher in Ridgefield, Wash., has created a literary firestorm by writing recently that, now that we have an African-American president, it’s time to drop The Adventures of the Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum. In an op-ed piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer earlier this month, John Foley said that it was increasingly difficult to downplay or contextualize the novel’s often demeaning racial content. “And,” he added, with what sounds like the voice of experience, “I never want to rationalize Huck Finn to an angry African-American mom again as long as I breathe.”

Foley also said that, because of their dated racial views, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men “don't belong on the curriculum, either.”

Foley’s editorial was heavily criticized both in his own school and in a stream of letters-to-the-editor and e-mails to the Post-Intelligencer, according to a follow-up story in the Los Angeles Times. “There’s nothing in American literature that more succinctly and directly attacks racial prejudice than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of the Huckleberry Finn,” wrote one reader. “This is another teacher anxious to pursue political correctness more than seek to understand what is involved in truly ‘reading’ a book.”

But Foley maintains that the classics he wants to drop no longer make sense in contemporary America. “Our new president is this very intelligent, highly articulate guy,” he told the L.A. Times, “and the literature we’re foisting on our children typically depicts black men as ignorant, inarticulate, uneducated. And the contrast just jumped out at me.”

24 Comments

Please! This is ludicrous. Now that the leader of the free world is black, we need not worry about racism anymore?

Why stop at removing these books from the curriculum? Let's take all this historical literature that relates to racism and burn it!

This is ridiculous! These novels are a part of American history. Why remove the books from any curriculum? Just because Barack Obama is now president does not mean that racism is dead in America - it is alive and well in various circles.

Just to clarify: I don't think, from the articles I link above, that Foley believes racism is dead in America--or is not an important issue. He just believes (I think) that the books in question reflect antiquated racial conventions that no longer make a lot of sense to today's students and are perhaps best left behind--or at least out of the curriculum.

Anthony Rebora, Managing Editor

This teacher is arguing for censorship ... it seems that simple to me. Once you can no longer read period pieces that reflect ideas, some of which may be outdated, but may be important to understanding the development of attitudes in our country, the door seems open to censoring anything that we find offensive (a word that we should probably eliminate from our vocabulary ... although that would be censorship :))

Enough political correctness. Read. Understand. Move on.

I disagree. I think that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other books written in the past serve to show us just how far we've come. I think they each show African Americans as good, hard working, decent, loyal people, which are still values we should all strive to attain. We see how they were treated 50 or 100 years ago versus today. It's a valuable lesson in history and human relations. Naturally it must be handled in a sensitive way with explanations of the time difference, but take them away all together? Never!

We should be careful about the charges we level at others. It is not censorship to choose one book over another, and the choices we make as educators should be continually evaluated as to their appropriateness, relevance and value.

There is an argument to be made that books such as Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird allow students to understand how the races related decades ago. I think that is a good argument, but it is more true for a history class than for an English class. In a history class, one could explore all the surrounding context and put these stories in that light. In an English class, the primary focus is the story itself, and here I think there is a problem, when the primary characters of color are, as Mr. Foley suggests, uneducated and inarticulate. This just does not resonate with the reality we are experiencing, and, it seems to me, Mr. Foley has a very good point.

Since we don't have unlimited time we cannot teach all books so we have to select, in a sense censor. But when there are preconditions that make one book "off limits" because of its content, I can't see how it is anything but censorship. Not that all of us have to teach it --- I have never taught it in 38 years because I don't find that it interests today's students. But when anyone tells me I CAN'T teach it, then I believe I am being censored.

Just the way it strikes me.

I do not think Mr. Foley is advocating the banning of these books. In fact, if you go and read his original op-ed, on which this story is based, he is recommending that the books remain in libraries and classrooms, but they be removed from the standard curriculum of the English class, and replaced by other novels of greater relevance. I do not see how this is censorship. It is just a teacher voicing his opinion about what should be taught, based on his best understanding of what his students need.

I understand that. If he doesn't want to teach the book in HIS class, then it's fine; remember, I don't teach it either. When he advocates that it NOT be taught, that fits my definition of censorship.


What does anyone else think?

I would be happy to hear from others as well, but here is my question to you. Mr. Foley has entered the public forum and expressed his opinion about what should be taught. He has invited discussion and debate. How in the world is that censorship? If you want to teach Huck Finn, get out there and explain why you think it is worthwhile. Why shouldn't there be periodic public discussion of what books we choose to teach?

First, allow me to say that I am concerned about the tone of some of the postings. I do not find it helpful to make accusation regarding the personal character or teaching competence of other professionals in the inquiry process.
I will, however, comment that it is for the very reasons espoused for not teaching theses works that I feel that they should be taught. I cannot tell you how delighted I am that my students are unfamiliar with many of the racial and gender slurs contained in those texts, but it is imperative that they understand the struggle and pain that bought them that luxury. Apparently I teach literary texts differently from some of the posters. I insist on teaching the text within its historical context, as well as how it was affected by and, in turn, affected that context. To do otherwise denies the power of literature and safely removes it from the context of the students' lives. While I admt that authors like Twain and O'Connor may appear racist at the surface, it is their characters who are racist, not the authors or narrators. From a purely linguistic standpoint, this allows me to graphically demonstrate voice and register to my students. I require them to discern between the narrator's tone and that of the characters of the text.
Personally, I refuse to stay in the safe zone of teaching texts that are not problematic. I prefer to confront the problems of the text head-on. While I acknowledge that my style is not everyone's, diving into the middle of the controversies inherent to a text engages my students and makes the texts real for them.
That said, I must also state that I do not teach Huck Finn. It is not because I have problems with teaching it. That particular text falls into the realm other grade levels. I do, however, explore with my students the issues of associated with Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Desiree's Baby, and several others.
While I think the censorship charges that have been leveled may be a bit extreme, I can not help but wonder what text is completely without issues that is worthy of the study of literature. Given enough spare time, I think I could find a reason not to teach everything in my curriculum.
At the heart of this discussion is a quotation from a poster that holds a special place on my wall, "Ships are very safe in harbors, but that's not what ships were built for." My students are not built for the safety of a bubble-wrapped PC world. By the way, if you know were that world is, tell the rest of us. But even once we find it, if indeeed that is the world we desire, we should never forget the path that brought us there

In my Pre-AP 9th grade English class we read To Kill A Mockingbird. I explain to my students the history of the period, including The Great Depression and the Jim Crow Laws. The students do a project on the Jim Crow Laws in which they research that history so that they obtain a complete understanding of OUR history and the setting of the story as Harper Lee meant it to be. We don't just "read" in my English classes. We read for a purpose and in this case it is to learn about our history as well as to grasp the literary elements.

As the director of a private high school I am shocked to see an article which displays such ignorance of literature and history, and most impotatnatly, written by a so called educator. Just goes to show there exists the lowest ten percent of employees in every profession.

Perhaps Mr. Rebora should establish a team of readers to explore censoring any and all classic reads and historic literatue that conflict with todays political corectness.

I don't understand why he HAS to teach this book. Our school system gives the teachers a list of books that can help with their curriculum and they get to choose which ones they want to use. But essentially banning the book from ever being read in a classroom is a very slippery slope. This whole scenerio reminds me of another good book to teach, "Fahrenheit 451," where censorship is raised to a whole new level. Perhaps that is a good book to read to show the kids what happens if we try to do away with all bad things from our past?

Mr. Kenney, just to clarify: This not my proposal and I am not the author of the original article. In the post above, I was just summarizing teacher John Foley's article and the controversy surrounding it--which I thought (correctly, I might add) would be of interest to our readers. As a rule, teachermagazine.org itself takes no editorial positions.

I am the mother of 3 school aged children and I believe that they should be aware of man's history, including racism and Hitler's atrocities so that they have a sense of man's cruelty to man. It is only through experience that we learn and evolve. My husband and I are actively involved in raising awareness of the unacceptable practice of physical (corporal) punishment (paddling with wooden boards) of Children in Schools for minor infractions such as chewing gum or violating dress codes in 21 states and working to ABOLISH CORPORAL PUNISHMENT OF CHILDREN IN SCHOOLS IMMMEDIATELY as it is a blatant CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION and does not ensure equal educational access to a safe, healthy and supportive learning environment for ALL American Children.

Huck Finn is about more than racism. It is about trusting one's own, innate sense of morality. It is about not trusting society's morals more than one's own. What better example of the ignorance of such ludicrous ideals that society once spewed than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Juxtaposing the novel and our polictical environment is very powerful. Twain was not painting a picture of racism, but rather slavery as a social ill that is indicative of possible present social problems.

I don't think teachers should have to teach Huck Finn, but then I don't think they shouldn't teach it either. The book is a tract against racism. Seriously. And in historical context it shows how embedded that world view was in people of the time. I actually think it could be a really interesting thing if you wanted to examine the portrayal of African Americans in literature to teach something like Huck Finn and then to teach a more modern novel and talk about the differences in how people and society act and are portrayed. Another thing I noticed wasn't already mentioned: The teacher mentioned rails against these texts for showing African Americans as uneducated, etc, although that was the case for most at the time (slaves were intentionally denied education). What isn't mentioned is that Huck Finn the hero of the story, is also uneducated and rather inarticulate.

Any classic work will manifest outdated conventions and attitudes. What about Shakespeare?

I appreciate his predicament in having to justify Huck Finn over and over to angry parents. I would feel the same way in his shoes. Maybe his school district should prepare something he could hand out to parents to explain the reason for teaching it. Mr. Foley should get more practical support from his school district on this issue.


Speaking as an individual I find this discussion symptomatic of one of the great ills that has developed in our country. Politically incorrect needs to be recognized for what it is: a sign of the times. You do not throw it away -- you teach why it is wrong! "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it!"

The things that Foley has raised as problems with HUCK FINN are potentially great strengths in teaching this book. When students and parents become engaged in questioning the text, the characters, the author, and even the teacher, it may be something to encourage. To my mind it would provide many "teachable moments" and pathways into the text. It certainly provides a potentially energizing springboard for examining the larger isssues of what makes for worthy literature and what makes literature worthy of study.

That said, being constantly on the defensive all the time, as Foley describes himself, is no fun. However, perhaps the reason Mr. Foley has felt so defensive is a reflection of his needing to find a better reason to teach texts than it is recommended, suggested, required, or just traditional at this grade in our school. It seems a very important question for Literature studies as to how we select the texts that we do teach.

Further Foley's position seems to lead to a classic "slippery slope" situation. Where next do we move the line? Are Holocaust stories like ANNNE FRANK or NIGHT to traumatic to teach? Should we avoid THE JUNGLE because it might upset someone's breakfast or turn them Vegan? I would maintain that it is exactly society's fault lines, the sore points if you will, that are most in need of our examining, and frequently makes for the most interesting literature.

In parting, I would suggest that there are other worthy texts that illuminate issues of racism, prejudice, and intolerance through other lenses. When I last taught American Literature, THE NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS made a huge impact on the class. However, one text is not the equivalent of the other. Twain clearly elucidates some things for us that Douglass can barely touch on and vice versa. For those, like Foley, who need to stay in a more comfortable zone, perhaps such other worthy texts would make them feel better about teaching literature that still deals with the controversial issues of race and class. However, his own dilemma belies any belief that these issues are somehow magically no longer controversial.

So, should we chuck Jane Austen because it's no longer assumed that women need to find husbands to support them, preferably before the age of twenty-two? Literature from other historical periods will always reflect social assumptions and even outright bigotries that we no longer find acceptable. That doesn't mean they're not relevant. In fact, they open the door to discussions of prejudices and injustices that have existed throughout history, and that are still with us today in one form or another. (Note that though Austen's view of marriage is outdated, there's still such a thing as a "spinster," and it's still gender-specific).

Moreover, as so many commenters have pointed out, Twain's novel offers a critique of racism, if you read closely and delve beneath the surface of the narration

How ignorant is it to say that it's fine to read a book that holds "often demeaning racial content" until the president is black? Were African American males less respectable and 'human' before he was president? No. There is no viable correlation between the understanding of a book and the Presidents skin. If so, then why didn't we outlaw the teaching of "Great Expectations" because women are sometimes described as cold and vengeful? Should we stop teaching "1984", "A Brave New World", and "Animal Farm" because our government is in control?

He IS a teacher, it is HIS JOB to teach students about literature. Literature is all about human realizations and growing up. Many of the novels used in high school especially are "coming-of-age" novels because kids are at that point in their life where their whole life is changing in every way, they're developing into adults. Huckleberry Finn and others (ie. The Catcher in the Rye) deal with that same topic: Going on an adventure to find yourself. The way this teacher is behaving is ridiculous and what he is practicing is pure negligence. It is his job to educate children with as much knowledge he can fit in their brains. High School is all about learning about History, whether you would like to think so or not. In English, you are taught about growing up and different types of obstacles people take in order to develop into an adult: character development. If you are "too tired" to teach novels, why not let someone else teach them? They have been taught for years and years and they have been taught for a reason. Kids should be taught about the horrible things people do/have done (ie. Holocaust, slavery, etc).

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