Friday, July 3, 2015

To Teach - or not - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

As we prepare to celebrate America and the idea of independence, I am thinking about the novel that has long been the voice of our heritage for many people. There is no "sacred book" in the high school canon that absolutely must be taught for a student to have a valid experience in literature. Granted, some English teachers believe it to be an abomination to graduate high school in America without having studied The Great Gatsby, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice, or others. That is, however, not true. There are far too many great works to determine that any one is indispensable, but it's important to understand and evaluate why or why not a teacher would teach a certain novel.  And, one that tops that list of either "sacred" or "taboo" is Mark Twain's seminal 19th century work Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi, I am partial to Twain in a way that many may not understand. In fact, my son's middle name is Twain. In completing my master's degree I was adamant that I take a class called "Twain and the Rise of Realism," and I have taught the novel on numerous occasions to various student populations. It is a watershed accomplishment in American writing, and it offers countless lessons and rich experiences on many levels. However, it remains one of our most controversial choices. That controversy is the heart of a piece of commentary from education writer Kent Oswald who offers "A Dissent on Teaching Huckleberry Finn," published in EdWeek. Now, I am not an adamant supporter of the teaching of Huck, and I respect any person's decision to teach it or not, but Oswald is dissenting and abandoning the book for some of the wrong reasons.

We should not - and cannot - turn away from viable and monumentally significant literary works because they are edgy or controversial or, worse, that "few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, [or] understand what the book is even about." Granted, Oswald argues that the book may be better reserved for college level readers, and I don't dispute that.  Unlike Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck is not a children's book, and I do believe it is wrong for middle or early high school.  And I studied it in both my undergrad and graduate work. Certainly, choosing other works by Twain is a viable and valid alternative.  But we must remember that guiding students through the tough stuff - the ideas and works they won't and can't access on their own - is precisely the purpose of formal education.

For those considering teaching Huck - or not - I highly recommend a PBS video called Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huck Finn. It offers some excellent guidance on the book, the teaching of it, and the controversy surrounding it.

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