Saturday, January 05, 2008

Descending Onto a Slippery Slope or Challenged to THINK

With the permission of Flash Cap, who appears to be a teacher in the Fort Worth area, I have published the essay found in his blog entry, "Another Post on Book Banning...." This essay is a response to the controversy over teaching classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In an article about the current controversy surrounding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn up in the Fort Worth area, Ron Price, a Dallas school board member, states, "We are here today to say we will not tolerate the N-word being used by any educators anywhere in our school district, throughout our region or the state of Texas. It's critical that we examine all of our textbooks to ensure that the language is proper and that the language is not being used to abuse any child in any school."

As an English teacher for ten years, I find Ron Price's statement scary, and not just because of my feelings about Twain and Huck. His statement suggests that any word deemed offensive by any student can and should be removed carte blanche from the curriculum. With this threat in mind, I started looking through my high school’s reading list in an effort to determine which works could be targeted.

Let's start with the word "nigger" - obviously, Twain's Huck Finn is gone. Tom Sawyer is, too. So are any number of his short stories and essays, including a scathing condemnation of a southern lynching entitled "Only a Nigger." But Twain's not the only author whose works will be culled. So, too, will Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" is removed, as are any number of his novels. Flannery O'Connor is also guilty of using the word in a few of her stories. Catch-22 is gone. A few Hemingway works won't make the cut (including The Sun Also Rises) and, to be consistent, neither will Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's novels Black Boy and Native Son, and Frederick Douglass' Autobiography (and most other slave narratives I've read). So right there we've effectively silenced three of the greatest African-American voices in American literature. But, hey, at least students won't be exposed to the word "nigger," right?

Swear words (not just racial epithets) are offensive, too. Good-bye, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Cold Mountain, Catch-22, Invisible Man, and Fahrenheit-451 (oh, the irony!). The boys of Lord of the Flies should have their mouths washed out with soap, and Orwell’s 1984 is horrid. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is gone (and I haven't even mentioned the witchcraft in that one...oops), as are Seabiscuit and A Separate Peace. Don't even get me started on Grendel, that monster (why can't he act civilized?). No wonder I hear all sorts of curse words in the hallways - the literature students are reading is setting the standard.

Let's move on to not just words, but actions (actions speak louder than words, you know). I know many people find sex offensive, particularly between unmarried people. So, so long, Scarlet Letter and Cold Mountain; good bye, Romeo and Juliet. The Great Gatsby has an affair in it, so scratch that, and the trouble in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible all starts with an affair between John Proctor and Abigail (but maybe we can leave that one in, since John is hanged at the end). Wait a minute - Willy Loman has an affair in Death of a Salesman - obviously Miller has some strange fixation on sexual trysts so let's ban 'em both. Catch-22 and Invisible Man are now three-time offenders, so perhaps we can burn them and drive home the point (I mean, do they have ANY redeemable qualities? Oops, that's beside the point). Dances with Wolves - Dunbar masturbates! And then he fools around with Stands With a Fist (this is after being fondled by some young indian women). The senior level reading list is chock-full of sex (implicit and explicit) -- Kate Chopin, you're not fooling anyone. Nude women abound in The Odyssey, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is scandalous (the foreword Wilde writes, notwithstanding). Not a sexual episode, but in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the titular Gulliver actually pees on a house to douse a fire – how lewd! Students don't need to be reading that, it's distracting and they'd laugh, and then the next thing we know THEY'LL be peeing on house fires (maybe we could just excise that portion).

And what about witchcraft? Goodbye Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar (is there ANY Shakespeare work that would be safe?) and The Crucible centers around it. If we throw in religion (don't want to start in with what any religious books say, as it might make some students uncomfortable) we also have to get rid of The Poisonwood Bible, any Puritan readings (Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", for example), and let's just ignore any allusions made in any other works ("Mr. Williams, what does Patrick Henry mean when he says 'Don't be betrayed by a kiss'?" "Just ignore that line, student of mine, it could be offensive if I explain it"). Practically nothing Abraham Lincoln wrote could be read (he was President! How dare he quote the Bible!), and more recently published novels being considered by our English staff like Life of Pi and The Kite Runner (both finalists for the Brazos Valley Reads program) are immediately verboten. Oops, perhaps I shouldn't use German because of the negative connotation it might have.

Strangely enough, graphic violence doesn't seem to offend anyone. But violence is usually accompanied by swearing (people who get shot/stabbed/poisoned are generally nonplussed) so it's a moot point.

Some reading this might reply that I’m descending onto a slippery slope. Perhaps a bit, but I would also point out that every specific work mentioned above has been challenged at a school somewhere in this country for the exact reason given. So here's the question: if we shouldn't include anything in our curriculum that could possibly/maybe/might offend someone, what exactly do we read? Does context not count anymore? Does authorial intent not mean anything? My entire AP reading list is gone, based on Ron Price's argument that began this missive. Most of the works included in Consolidated's English curriculum are questionable because they could make some students uncomfortable, and apparently that's not what some in high places believe literature should do.

But I would argue that this is EXACTLY what it should do. This is what great literature (i.e. education) does: it makes us question our society, our world, our selves, and questions without immediate answers are uncomfortable. When we read any novel, we come into it with preconceived ideas and if the book makes us question those ideas, we're forced to THINK about why we believe the things we do. Huck Finn makes us think about race (which will ALWAYS be an issue in the U.S., even if we abolish the word 'nigger') and how supposedly civilized people treat one another. It's a tale of how difficult it actually is to overcome the supposed "truths" society feeds us from day one, and it's a tale of friendship. To ban this book (and others) for the use of deemed "offensive" words, disregarding entirely the context of such use and the author's intent, is a crime far greater than making a student uncomfortable. Yes, some ideas we encounter in our education can be offensive, but if teachers are just in the business of reinforcing preconceived notions/ideas, playing it safe, why the hell are we here?


TallH20 said...

Thank goodness there are literary heros like you out there! Keep up the great work. I'm working my way through the list.

Anonymous said...

I just read Huck Finn and Fahrenheit 451 in school and writing a paper about the controversy in the books. What you said really helped me and I completely agree. Content is so important and we need these books that make us think more about the world around us.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that banning a book is going too far down a road that leads nowhere, I do know from personal experience that some of the books mentioned I was forced to read in school. The message they had to convey was in *NO* way improved by the use of obscenities and vulgarity. I realize that authors are not perfect people, anymore than Hollywood directors are, however, I was often exposed to more filthy language in a single required reading novel for High School English class than in all the television and books I would choose to watch/read during the whole rest of the year. Some people simply choose not to indulge in such things. There is no need for obscenities in our lives, not on TV, not in books, and certainly not in school.

It seems that there is a much more simplistic solution to the problem. Simply make a G-rated version of books that contain highly offensive language. Replace the "N" word with the word "Colored" (as the latter still carries the negative connotation). Replace other obscenities with more appropriate language. The meaning of the novels would not be lost.

There is a vast distance between banning a book and forcing everyone in a class to read said book. Unfortunately, too many schools can't see that and feel that they have only two choices: require it to be read by every student or ban it forthwith. Surely compromise is preferable to forcing the young people of today to fill their minds with even more vulgarity than that to which they are already exposed. Of all the places that vulgarity should not be present, English class would seem to me to be at the top of the list.


fahrenheit451moderator said...

I recently came across an excellent article which talks about the history of the banning and censorship of Huck Finn. Find it at: