Culture

Banning Huck Finn Would Hurt More Than It Helps

(Dreamstime image: Dirima)
Students shouldn't be protected from learning about the past.

An entire Virginia school district has temporarily banned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because one parent complained about the use of racial slurs in the books.

The temporary ban at Accomack County Public Schools came after a parent complained during a November 15 board meeting that her son, a mixed-race student at the district’s Nandua High School, was upset by the use of racial slurs in the books, according to an article in the Washington Post.

“I’m not disputing this is great literature,” the mother, Marie Rothstein-Williams, said in the meeting. “But there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”

Rothstein-Williams also said that assigning these books amounts to teaching students that it’s okay to use racial slurs — but that really makes no sense. After all, since when do people think that reading something in a book automatically means that it’s okay? According to this logic, we shouldn’t give students any books about slavery, because that is going to make them think that slavery is okay. It’s both a slippery and ridiculous slope. Let’s be real here: Teachers teaching lessons on these books are more than capable of explaining the problems with using racial slurs, and the students sitting in these high-school classes are probably already well aware of that anyway.

What’s more, Huckleberry Finn is a decidedly anti-slavery novel. It’s entirely about a white boy trying to help a slave escape, and To Kill a Mockingbird is about a lawyer fighting to prove the innocence of his African-American client against all odds. Do these books use the N-word? Yes, they do. Is that a bad word? Yes, very much so. But the thing is, that is the way that people talked during those days, and that’s something that’s important for students to learn.

Rothstein-Williams certainly is correct in saying that we are a “nation divided,” but the best way to become united is to gain a greater understanding of each other and our histories. Make no mistake: We need to know what the past was like in order to fully understand the present, and knowing more about what the past was like for African Americans in this country is only going to make people more understanding of the current movement for racial justice.

#related#All too often, conservatives are portrayed as the ones who want to “ban” things from schools that they disagree with. Although there certainly have been incidents — every now and then we hear about people wanting to ban the teaching of evolution, for example — there really aren’t any consequences to these movements. Of all of the books tracked by the American Library Association,  Huckleberry Finn is the one most often targeted for removal from schools and libraries, and To Kill a Mockingbird is up there, too. In 2015, the Bible was No. 6 because of its “religious viewpoint.” You know, because the Bible is just a religious book, and it has definitely not had the kind of historical or cultural influence that would make it worth reading for people with other beliefs.

Now, if Rothstein-Williams’s son is traumatized by reading the books, then that’s something that he should certainly be able to work out with the school. In an ideal situation, perhaps there could be classes that do teach these books and classes that don’t, and each individual parent and student could make the decision for themselves. Unfortunately, however, blanket, district-wide policies such as this book ban are exactly what prevents the kind of case-by-case, student-centered problem-solving that allows each individual student to get the education that’s best for him.

— Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online

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