Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Leave Poor Huck Alone"

In an act of misguided intent, Alan Gribben (Auburn University) has edited a new version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, expunging the "N" word from the text in the name of racial sensitivity and with the hope of creating new and younger audiences for the "boy books," including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Is whiting out the most hurtful word in the English language a victory for censorship or a necessary corrective in American letters? 

African American scholar Randall Kennedy explains Twain's use of the "N" word in his etymological essay Nigger: The Strange Case of a Troublesome Word:  "By putting nigger in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding whites." Teachers' responsibility obligates them to lead students to this understanding, even though the word, arguably, is the most hurtful moniker in the English language. 

Although I do admire Gibben for risking his academic reputation and for using Twain's original holographs when editing, he erases much of Twain's condemnation of institutional racism; thus he obliterates an important part of Reconstruction and Jim Crow history. 

More importantly, HF with the "N" word is "a text that confronts so dramatically the ugliness of slavery and racism," says Kennedy. Gibbon correctly states that "Race matters" in Huck. Twain wanted it to matter in the nineteenth century too, which is why he uses the word. The author wanted his white audience to "subvert, not to reinforce racism," argues Kennedy. Yet Gibben justifies his changing the "N" word to slave thusly: "It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." However, eradicating the novel of its most potent anti-racist diction essentially all but kills the satirical heart and soul of the novel.

Fortunately, publisher New South, Inc welcomes the impending debate publication of the new edition will prompt: "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled."

Yet, messing with Huck's language places other texts at risk of the same fate, including those by African American writers. I teach Octavia Butler's Kindred, a contemporary African-American novel that also uses the "N" word, and that in doing so articulates an important lesson about the difference in the way white folks use it versus its usage by African Americans. 

Like Grant Wood's "American Gothic," a novel is a work of art and the author is an artist. The public outcry would be deafening if an art critic were to edit "American Gothic" in the name of making the farmers more modern, although we can appreciate a good parody of the painting as these images show.  Why, then should we embrace such a significant alteration of HF?


Well intentioned scholars who want to mess with Huck and who rationalize doing so in the name of political correctness forget Twain's admonition to "leave poor Huck alone." He's suffered enough. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ageism and Planned Obsolescence: A Strategy for Education Reform

Shortly after the groundbreaking report A Nation At Risk (1983), the district where I worked adopted an evaluation instrument designed to limit positive feedback but which included a section called "documentaion for removal." This paradigm shift from seeing the good in teachers to looking for the bad has haunted me throughout my career. Possibly, this motivated me to constantly improve my practice through education and rigorous professional development. Only in the past two years have I feared growing older in my profession. Only recently have I sensed subtle descrimination based on age.

When teachers chant the Bill Gates mantra that experience and education don't matter, they become pawns in the effort to "deskill" teaching. They help construct the business model of high stakes testing in education promoted by Gates, et al. In a recent Answer Sheet article, Diane Ravitch explains the "us against them" strategy today's education reformers have adopted:

The reformers pit parents against parents, charter parents vs. regular public school parents, competing for dollars and space; and they pit teacher against teacher, bringing in new teachers to take jobs from experienced teachers while the "reformers" demean the value of experience (emphasis added).

Their strategy is conflict, and it is hard to see how children will benefit when the grown-ups are fighting for control of the schools and the profession. ("Ravitch Takes Stock of Education in 2010)

Recent litigation helps support Ravitch's claim that reformers devalue experience, prefering younger teachers, as this article evidences. Programs such as Teach for America, as well as the recent redefinging of "highly qualified" are designed to create a cadre of teachers who enter the profession for a few years after minimal training and who burn out quickly and leave. This economic policy of "planned obsolescence" pervades the retail market, and it's what today's reformers want in teaching.

Therefore, to teachers of all ages, I say thank you for the work you do.To my young colleagues, thank you for energizing our profession with new ideas and idealism that recharges my enthusiasm for teaching; thank you for keeping me young at heart. To my colleagues with longevity: Thank you for sharing your experience and hard-earned expertise with me, for mentoring me, and for creating a culture of excellence to inspire me.

As a colleague who use to teach across the hall from me says, "If we don't stand together, we'll fall together."