Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Controversial Literature: Why I Teach Huck Finn

I just read an interesting article on Education Week's website called "A Dissent on Teaching Huckleberry Finn," written by Kent Oswald.  The author is against the teaching of what I consider to be Mark Twain's greatest work of American literature.  Unlike most opponents of Huck Finn in the classroom, though, Oswald doesn't argue that the novel is racist, or uses inappropriate language, but that it's difficult to understand.  He writes:

 "Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain's use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. So where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for?"

As a high school English teacher who delights in teaching this book, I have to disagree.  I choose to share Huck with my students for many reasons, and some of them are the exact reasons Oswald is using to argue against it.


I love that Twain uses "colloquial" speech.  In a world where my Appalachian students are told that their regional speech patterns are "wrong" and "backward," I enjoy showing them that there can be a time and place to celebrate the dialects that make us unique.  Yes, it takes time to read and understand the dialogue, but so does Shakespeare.  Anyone want to ban Shakespeare from the English classroom?  Not this girl.

Secondly, Twain's "subtle subversion" of pre-Civil War America's racism is the best teaching tool the novel provides.  By helping my students to understand satire and the subtleties of political speech, I am helping them become stronger decision makers and setting them up for future election campaigns in which they'll need to make important voting decisions (and see through the crap).  Mark Twain also sets an incredible example by making his statement quietly, but with force.  He didn't need violence to get his point across-- just a pen.  What a great lesson for my students!

I, for one, don't see myself setting this book aside anytime soon.  Among the novels I teach with my freshman English classes, this one wins the prize for inspiring real critical thinking and open discussion with my students.  If it's kind of hard to read, so be it. When we stop teaching anything hard, what will become of our kids?

I'd love to hear your feedback on Huck Finn or any other controversial texts-- please be nice and remember that this is a place of peace, love, and learning!

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