However, you HAD to know that I would have a position on this whole Mark Twain thing. And having been a faithful reader these past few months, you have seen my passion for literature come out more heavily than in the months before. Not only that, but I just happen to be reading a Mark Twain volume right now. So it was too much to pass up issuing comment.
If you haven’t heard, a new version of “Huckleberry Finn” (not Huckleberry Hound– I always got those two confused!) will be released next month with certain edits and revisions. Huck Finn is notorious for its crude and offensive language. It isn’t a secret– in fact, it is the fourth most banned book in schools. And it is due to its use of derogatory terms to refer to African-Americans and Native Americans; this new version will omit all of these terms, replacing them with more politically correct ones.
And I am 100% in favor of it. Shocked right? Isn’t this censorship? This isn’t the 1960’s when “Catcher in the Rye” was banned. This is the 21st century. How much harm could a kids’ book written 125 years ago really do?
A lot, actually. And I believe that a book like this should be utilized carefully.
Huck Finn is a hallmark of literature and representative of the works of perhaps our greatest American author. Mark Twain’s use of satire and comedy for social commentary is unmatched and, even in the early years of education when only the surface of the story is explored, it is just a good story and one which kids will enjoy. So in that respect, the specific language used should be of secondary concern. Of primary concern should be attention to the structure of the story and the craft of storytelling. And, oh yeah, developing a joy for reading, learning of the power of imagination, and sparking an interest in literature.
But I think that when students are in their formative years and the teachers are guided by a strict curriculum, when children are already resistant to being taught the classics (recall how adamant I was that Charles Dickens was a waste of time!), no good can come of placing into their hands information ripe for misuse. When you force things down a student’s throat, you have to expect not only resistance, but vigilant resistance.
Children do not take things seriously. The language of Shakespeare? How many times has “Romeo and Juliet” been parodied on television through sarcastic and immature renderings? It is one thing to have Steve Urkel blundering his way through “Where for art thou?”; it is another thing altogether to allow kids free reign to use the new words they have just heard. Once it gets on the playground, it is impossible to remove.
Let’s face it– students are not well-equipped to deal with sensitive information. So much effort has been made of late to eradicate certain derogatory terms from the English language and placing these terms into the minds of teens and younger is simply a recipe for disaster. We have all seen the show offs on the kickball fields; the 4th grader who went to the “R” rated movie and has to prove to everyone he knows how to use bad language. Do we really want this kid to also have access to racially insensitive terms like that?
There is a place for it though, and that is in our colleges and universities. Leave the “dirty” words in for the literature students, those who are enrolling in literature classes because of an interest and desire to learn. It is in those places where the literature can be taught more responsibly, with the appropriate seriousness it deserves, where the nuances of the story can be explored and the social commentaries studied. And where the students voluntarily undertake such study with a real focus on academia and not just prurience.
I know that this will create a slippery slope, for if we allow modification for this purpose then we are opening the door for further revision. Now it is the removal of derogatory terms from Huck Finn; next it is teaching Shakespeare by watching the movie “10 Things I Hate About You;” then it is omitting any reference to the Holocaust in history class because of its racial insensitivity. I agree, there is that risk. But we already trust our educational system to teach our kids, shouldn’t we be able to trust them to make the right decisions as far as “revisionist” history goes?
I just cringe at the thought of 9th graders or 5th graders or 1st graders or even 12th graders having access to this information and thinking that the use of the terminology is acceptable because it is from a “classic.” Mark Twain used his terms carefully and purposefully. Children do not. Twain was very particular with his word selection. Children are not. The time it would take to teach maturity and responsibility for the use of the terms would significantly outweigh the time it would take to teach the book itself and would draw negative attention to a novel which, for better or for worse, is truly a classic of American literature.
Feel free to forward this to friends or anyone else you think might enjoy it. Thanks!