The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently that school administrators at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum to placate students who complained that racial elements in the book made them feel uncomfortable. The administrators concluded that the “costs” to the community of assigning the book outweighed its literary value. On the contrary, by coddling the students and declaring literature less important than their sensitivity, the school did both the students and the community a serious disservice.
Published in 1885 with the Civil War still in living memory, Mark Twain’s classic novel about a white boy traveling down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave remains one of our nation’s most controversial books even 130 years later. It was the 14th most “challenged” book in the country during the 2000s, according to the American Library Association, and it still faces occasional bans and boycotts in schools due to its notorious abundance of N-words and politically incorrect depictions of black characters.
In 2011, in a well-meaning attempt to soften the book’s tone for a modern audience, a publisher released an edition of Huck Finn with all 219 instances of the racial slur replaced by the word “slave,” a pale synonym that guts Twain’s original language and lacks the abhorrent impact of the N-word (as does the euphemism “N-word” itself).
But students (and adults too, for that matter) deserve the unvarnished reality of art, not a revisionist attempt to sand down its rough edges. After all, we don’t drape the nude loins of Michelangelo’s David with Hanes boxers just because the sight of the statue’s penis might make some tourists feel awkward.
The administrators of the aforementioned Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania apparently feel otherwise. Some students complained that by foisting Huck Finn onto them, the school was not being inclusive of those who might be “triggered” by a story about slavery with the N-word sprinkled liberally throughout. After holding a forum for students and faculty, administrators decided to pull the book from the 11th-grade American literature class. Principal Art Hall declared in a letter to parents that the book will remain in the school library, but its place on the reading list will be given over to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The autobiography of a black man who rose above slavery to become a social reformer and statesman is certainly a worthwhile read, but so is Twain’s novel—perhaps all the more so because its controversial nature deserves to be confronted and explored, not swept under the carpet.
“We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits,” Hall explained in his letter. What a disappointing conclusion. Principal Hall seems to believe, as many today do, that students—indeed, whole “communities”—must be protected from the emotional discomfort that art and/or history sometimes provokes. He seems to be saying that the study of any work of literature that runs against the grain of acceptable (i.e., politically correct) positions on socially sensitive issues should be avoided to prevent community discord.
Thanks to the divisive rise of identity politics, racial and gender sensitivity on our high school and college campuses has been ratcheted up to a tragicomic degree. Teachers and administrators now tiptoe through a minefield of microaggressions, while hyper-sensitive students aggressively demand that educational institutions be remade into “safe homes.” Feelings are more valued than education or even the freedom of speech; protecting students from offense has become more important than preparing them for the world beyond the bubble of their safe space.
Hall declared that the decision would empower his students, and was proud of the school’s sensitivity to their concerns: “I do not believe that we’re censoring. I really do believe that this is an opportunity for the school to step forward and listen to the students,” he said.
You don’t empower students by coddling them from historical reality and sheltering them from works of art that might cause emotional discomfort or challenge the students’ worldview. Nor is it a good idea for educators to cede their authority to anti-intellectual students who then will simply expect, if not demand, to be granted more accommodations whenever a book or subject “offends” them—in other words, whenever they disagree with it.
The proper attitude is demonstrated by Jim Miller, an English teacher and dean at another local school, who said, “We don’t shy away from teaching [the book]. We see it as a very important opportunity to educate kids further about the use of language, especially the use of the N-word.” Miller said that the English classes teaching Huck Finn encourage students to think critically about history and language—and that is as it should be.
The benefits of literature absolutely outweigh “the community costs” of reading it. Studies show that reading literary fiction encourages creativity and individualism, fosters critical thinking (as Principal Miller noted), expands an understanding of the past and the present, and even makes people more empathetic. Rejecting that to protect students’ feelings risks creating a generation of students who are emotionally stunted, close-minded, insular, conformist, and uneducated, among whom individuality is feared, suppressed and subordinated to a mob mentality. That’s the real community cost.