I moderate the queue for the Scientists on the Spot and Dr. Alan Goodman was asked a really good question about Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. It's getting a lot of great feedback, so I thought I would move the thread over here where other folks can chime in on the discussion.
A high school student in Minnesota recently raised concerns about reading Huck Finn as part of required curriculum for their English class. Their concern is Twain's use of racially charged language. What are your thoughts on educational standards that involve "classic" works, literary-historic-artistic value to culture that include language and sometime arguments and ideas that can be experienced as bigotry by today's students?
Dr. Goodman's reply:
Although I do not teach fiction and literature, I actually have the same sorts of concerns with historical sources and even science books and articles. For example, students in my class frequently critically read scientific and popular writings from the 19th and early parts of the 20th century that are virulently racist. While such writing can cause pain, I think in the end the worse problem is to ignore the past. There are many valuable lessons.
I have a couple of thoughts about how to present “racist” literature. It is important to put the work in its historical context and in the case of fiction, to provide a sense of what the author’s intentions and motivations may have been. I think it is also critical to understand what was acceptable and common in the past. Finally, these are the ideas and worldviews that shaped our society. Such racist language – and the thoughts behind the language – are still around today. Reading Huck Finn could lead to a valuable class discussion about how the forms of acceptable language have changed compared to the underlying idea about race and racism.
What do you think?