It's a typical day in 11th Grade American Lit. You are teaching about Mark Twain and decide that the students would not only enjoy but get a lot out of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The school has purchased enough books for each student to receive one, so you hand them out. Then you spend the rest of the class period discussing a very important issue: Twain's use of the 'n' word throughout the book. You explain that not only do we have to look at the book through the context of the time period, but we also have to understand what Twain was trying to do with his story. He was trying to reveal the plight of the slave. And he was doing it with the vernacular of the time. The students snicker a little. Some might even make wisecracks when they think you're not listening. But you hear and correct them. You make sure they understand the reason behind the word. You ask for any questions or concerns. You tell the students they can come to speak with you later. None do. All seems well.
A week passes. The students have already had their first quiz. Then, you receive a call from the principal. It seems that one of the parents is concerned at the prevalence of the 'n' word in the book. They consider it racist. They want you to quit teaching it. They make hints that they will take the issue further if their needs are not met. What do you do?
This situation is not a pleasant one. But it is not necessarily a rare one either. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the 4th most banned books in schools according to Banned in the U.S.A. by Herbert N. Foerstal. In 1998 three new attacks arose to challenge its inclusion in education.
Is censorship in schools good? Is it necessary to ban books? Each person answers these questions differently. This is the core of the problem for educators. Books can be found offensive for many reasons. Here are just some reasons taken from Rethinking Schools Online:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou. Reason: Rape scene, "anti-white"
- Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck. Reason: Profanity
- Go Ask Alice Anonymous. Reason: Drug use, sexual situations, profanity
- A Day No Pigs Would Die Robert Newton Peck. Reason: Depiction of pigs mating and being slaughtered.
Many ways exist to ban books. Our county has a group which reads the questionable book and determines whether its educational value exceeds the weight of the objections against it. However, schools can ban books without this lengthy procedure. They just choose not to order the books in the first place. This is the situation in Hillsborough County, Florida. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times, one elementary school will not stock two of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling because of the "witchcraft themes." As the Principal explained it, the school knew they would get complaints about the books so they did not buy them. Many people, including the American Library Association has spoken out against this. I found an article by Judy Blume on the website for the National Coalition Against Censorship to be very interesting. It's title: Is Harry Potter Evil?
The question that faces us in the future is 'when do we stop?' Do we remove mythology and Arthurian legends because of its references to magic? Do we strip the shelves of medieval literature because it presupposes the existence of saints? Do we remove Macbeth because of the murders and witches? I think that most would say there is a point where we must stop. But who gets to pick the point?