Political correctness is not always the proper solution
Friday, January 1, 2016
Friends Central School’s recent decision to ban Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from its 11th-grade English curriculum after a group of students said the book made them feel uncomfortable suggests that political correctness is more important than historical integrity.
Nor is the decision consistent with the responsibility a school has to challenge students to think critically about issues like racism. Published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is told by Huck, a white boy escaping an abusive father, and about his adventures traveling the Mississippi River with an escaped slave named Jim. The book caused controversy from the start because it showed too great of a friendship between a white boy and a slave and challenged authority, poked fun at religion and was accused of leading children astray. But Finn also made a powerfully satirical statement against slavery by showing the inhumanity of racism; which was exactly Twain’s point.
After Twain’s death in 1910, Finn was hailed as a masterpiece. Novelist Ernest Hemingway claimed that “all modern American literature” was inspired by the book. Other writers as diverse as American poet T.S. Eliot and African-American novelist Ralph Ellison also testified to the classic work’s “literary merit” and the “insights it offers into American society.” That is why Finn was made an integral part of the curriculum in American high schools.
To be sure, Twain’s liberal use of the N-word in the book is insulting to 21st-century Americans. But the term’s usage prior to the Civil War, when the story takes place, was part of the cultural currency of the time period.
To impose contemporary conventions and values on literature that was written over a century ago not only denies the reader an accurate understanding of the book’s cultural context, but is historically irresponsible.
If Friends Central’s students objected to the N-word, why didn’t the school simply replace the original work with the sanitized version published by New South Books in 2011? That version replaces the N-word with the term “slave.” Or why not teach a unit on the N-word and encourage students to think critically about history and language?
Instead, the administration bowed to those students who “felt the school was not being inclusive.” After conducting a student-faculty forum on the issue, Friends’ Central decided to strike Finn from the 11th-grade American literature reading list. Citing the school’s Quaker emphasis on the peaceful resolution of conflict and consensus decision-making, Principal Art Hall stated that he was “very proud of the process that our community engaged in to make the decision.”
Friends Central certainly has the right to interpret the Quaker philosophy as they wish. But I also attended Friends’ schools for most of my education, and my teachers made sure that the students were exposed to books and educational films on slavery, civil rights and the Holocaust that were fairly graphic and made many students feel uncomfortable.
I cannot imagine, for example, being denied the opportunity of reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” because its graphic portrayal of the Holocaust made my Jewish classmates uncomfortable, or Finn because of the discomfort of some black classmates. Nor do I believe that exposure to the PBS film “Eyes on the Prize” with its graphic violence of southern black high school students being attacked by fire hoses and police dogs was a bad thing, though it certainly made both black and white classmates uncomfortable. But I do know that those lessons strengthened my own commitment to civil rights.
“Political correctness” is not always the proper solution in educating young minds, especially when dealing with American literature and history. Sometimes students need to be made uncomfortable about the social injustices that took place in our country.
Education, in general, and Quaker education, in particular, should be about calculated risk-taking and encouraging students to challenge the stereotypes of society. Only in these ways can we hope that the next generation will affect constructive change in the future.