The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

6 November 2002

UnTwained masses

Okay, you've got an English class to teach, more literary than grammatical this semester, and one of the books you have to cover is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What's first on your list of things you need to make this work? Enough copies to go around? Tom Sawyer as a prerequisite? If you're in Portland, Oregon, at the very top of the list is, of all things, sensitivity training. That whirring sound you hear is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, subterranean pinwheel.

How in the world did we ever get to this sorry state? Erin O'Connor explains:

Literature teachers and literary "theorists" have long used (I mean used) literature to further a distinctly left-leaning multicultural agenda — to study English in school today is to become sensitized to how literature has historically been an instrument of both power and resistance; it is to absorb the etiquette of "diversity" by way of — as the truth of — literary history. It is to "learn" about oppression. Huck Finn is a favorite stomping ground for English teachers who use literature to stage politicized discussions about the various -isms; assessing the quality and caliber of the novel's "racism" has become something of a pedagogical sport in recent years — as if pejoratively labelling a work of art were an act of interpretation, as if stroking our enlightened egos at Twain's expense could even begin to do justice to the complexity and enormity of his deceptively simple little novel.

It's not just Twain's expense, either; to the extent that our children are herded through this "multicultural" charnel-house, they are deprived of the opportunity to make up their own minds, to learn how to decide for themselves what a book like Huckleberry Finn — indeed, any book — really means.

(Muchas gracias: John Rosenberg.)

Posted at 9:22 PM to Almost Yogurt

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(You knew I'd have something to say on this.)

"...they are deprived of the opportunity to make up their own minds, to learn how to decide for themselves what a book like Huckleberry Finn — indeed, any book — really means." (CG Hill)

I've long wondered if the sheer teaching of the novel in the classroom, by its very nature, does not do the very same thing. Have we, as well-meaning English teachers, done a disservice to our charges in attempting to 'break apart' a novel, at times to the extent that it takes away the student's desire to read for the sake of reading...

Just a thought. Then again, we didn't turn out so illiterate, at that, as our literature teachers 'helped us along' with our reading. But they seemed to know where the fine line between 'helping along' and 'letting go' was drawn. Today, too many teachers just erase that line and the 'letting go' is shot all to hell.

Posted by: Victoria at 2:51 PM on 7 November 2002

There's some sense to this, I think. If you look at everything under the most sensitive of microscopes, eventually you forget what anything actually looks like; the details overwhelm the big picture. And I worry that the current tendency in some areas to teach "what's on the test" will inspire more regurgitation than cogitation.

The trend toward literature-as-group-therapy, despite the claims of its proponents, is the very antithesis of "helping along" the young reader; whatever conclusions the student may reach are promptly beaten to death by the club of political correctness.

Posted by: CGHill at 5:43 PM on 7 November 2002