Should Huck Finn still be taught?
John Foley figures he has pretty much maxed out on explaining to African American mothers why it’s OK to call a black man the N-word -- as long as it’s in a novel that is considered a classic.
For years, English teachers have been explaining away the obvious racism in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And for years, the book that perhaps best explains Americans’ genetic predilection for hitting the road, only to later find themselves, has stayed near the top of many high school reading lists.
However, with an African American about to be inaugurated as president, Foley wonders whether ‘Huck Finn’ ought to be sent back down the river. Why not replace it with a more modern, less discomfiting novel documenting the epic journey of discovery?
“The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms,” Foley wrote in a guest column this month for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.”
Foley, 48, teaches at a largely white suburban high school near Portland, Ore. Year after year, he said, he patiently explains to his students that Jim, a black man, is actually the hero of the novel, and that Huck comes to see the error of his ways and commits to helping Jim escape slavery. But many of them find the book dull and plodding, and they sometimes never get past the demeaning word Huck uses to refer to his friend.
“This is particularly true, of course, of African American students,” Foley wrote. “With few exceptions, all the black students in my classes over the years have appeared very uncomfortable when I’ve discussed these matters at the beginning of the unit. And I never want to rationalize ‘Huck Finn’ to an angry African American mom again as long as I breathe.”
He also thinks “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s classic about racial inequity in the Deep South, and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” should be removed from the curriculum for similar reasons.
Foley had wanted to talk to the staff at Ridgefield High School about his proposal, but after his op-ed was published, it was as though a stink bomb had landed in a crowded room.
“Obama would be horrified if he knew this censorship was done in his name,” wrote Trudy J. Sundberg, a retired teacher of American literature from Oak Harbor, Wash. Her response to Foley’s column was just one in a barrage of letters and e-mails that the newspaper received.
“What an amazingly stupid teacher this is,” another reader wrote. “There is nothing in American literature that more succinctly and directly attacks racial prejudice than Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ This is another teacher anxious to pursue political correctness more than seek to understand what is involved in truly ‘reading’ a book.”
Foley said he was most bemused by critics who insisted he was being satirical, that he couldn’t have seriously been attacking three novels that say more against human intolerance than almost any you could think of. “Whenever you take a couple of shots at sacred cows, people assume it’s satire,” he said one recent afternoon at a Starbucks as students streamed in for lattes and spiced tea.
“It’s just my experience teaching, especially ‘Huck Finn.’ Every year, it seems to be a tougher sell to the kids. I have a lot of passion for ‘Huck Finn,’ and my enthusiasm usually carries the book. But I have kids come up to me, very smart kids, who say, ‘Mr. Foley, I hate this book.’ ” They hate not only the difficult dialogue, he said, but what students -- usually white ones -- object to as “demeaning stereotypes.”
“Our new president is this very intelligent, highly articulate guy, 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,” he said.
Foley said his students were now reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The character Tom Robinson is very noble, he said, “but again, he’s uneducated, inarticulate. I was just thinking, for students here in Washington anyway, wouldn’t ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ be just as valuable?”
That book, written by David Guterson, documents the internment of Japanese American residents of the San Juan Islands during World War II and the efforts of a few islanders to defend their neighbors against an onslaught of bigotry, jealousy and false accusations.
If Foley could, he would replace “Huck Finn” with the epic tale of two old cowboys’ last great cattle drive, Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” and “Of Mice and Men” with Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam novel, “Going After Cacciato.”
“Like George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s novel, Cacciato dreams of peace and a better world. And the Vietnam War is a more recent -- and arguably more painful -- era in American history than the Depression, and one of more interest to teens,” Foley said in his op-ed.
His objections to reading “Finn,” “Mice” and “Mockingbird” in the classroom are hardly new; such criticism has been lobbed at the books over the years. Some schools have gone so far as to take them off reading lists and library shelves.
But those against censorship have countered that such books contain civilized values in direct opposition to racism that make them deserving of being read and taught as the classics they are.
That seems to be the prevailing view at Ridgefield High.
“I have a 14-year-old son, and he’s read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” said Julie Olson, chairwoman of the school board. “He clearly understands the concepts involved, and it wasn’t really a stretch for him to get it.”
Foley said he doesn’t want to ban the books. He just thinks they shouldn’t be the backbone of the American literature curriculum in 2009, he said, at a time when getting kids to read anything at all is a struggle.
“You have to remember, it’s hard to sell kids these days on books. I write young adult novels, and sometimes I wonder, why bother? You’re writing for three girls who like to read.”