by Kent Oswald
Into the waterfall of educational concerns that current reform initiatives are unlikely to fix, add how required reading of certain literary classics often ruins teens’ potential interest in serious reading. Among the chief culprits: the book sometimes called the “great American novel” and the recipient of, among other endorsements for inclusion in the canon, Ernest Hemingway’s tribute that, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
Hemingway may be right, but during and after the usual two-chapter-a-night, test-in-three-weeks slog through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, memory and experience suggest few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, understand what the book is even about, or have their imaginations sparked by absorbing how differing contexts have made the tale controversial from its time through today. Huck Finn, not to be confused with the more youth-reader-friendly Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is a thorny book. Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain’s use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. Where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for? Not every reader is Hemingway; few teachers are up to the task or allowed the time to prepare students for the issues of race and language and satire that are the novel’s background.
When we teach Twain, why Huck Finn? Inarguably, the man from Hannibal is an important American writer whom students should know about. But why present him in a way to drive away potential interest? Teachers may have an unlimited repertoire of ways to teach the book, but given the usual results, what is the purpose of that instruction? To make students feel that literature isn’t really for them? Twain did write more accessible books. Why not teach The Innocents Abroad (and perhaps use it as a way to teach connections between journalism and novels and how America in the 19th century connects to today) or a collection of Twain’s short stories as representative of the writer and his influence? The English curriculum through high school should be based on what builds reading comprehension, critical thinking and communication skills, as well as inspiring students in their own lifelong reading binge.
Where within the wisdom of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts does it mandate that teachers should ruin the potential for enjoying books for an academic purpose probably not served? Shouldn’t Huck Finn (and any number of other books in “the canon” for that matter) be saved as a syllabus item for college literature classes, or maybe just for students in advanced courses where its “controversies” can be considered within a challenging academic context? To stretch an analogy, we don’t start teaching William Shakespeare by making students try to relate to King John or Troilus and Cressida. Instead, they are tempted with the foredoomed love of Romeo and Juliet and the blood lust on the surface of Hamlet, Julius Caesar or Macbeth.
Don’t get me wrong: High school students should not be kept from great and challenging works. But picking books that will work across the range of abilities in a typical classroom today requires more than just reliance on traditional reading lists. For exposure to 19th-century American novels students might better connect to, consider Herman Melville’s Omoo or Typee, which get students out on a whaling ship and, maybe, hopefully, on a reading voyage that will eventually lead to Moby Dick. Perhaps in addition to their classics already in the canon try to mesh with student interest in things dark by assigning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and the stories (and even poems) of Edgar Allan Poe.
If a teacher has a way to teach a classic so that students respond, that is one thing, but particularly in an age when school boards do not give teachers the time or resources for in-depth exploration, forcing even a great author’s most highly acclaimed work on students not ready for it does no justice to the work, the teacher, or the student.
Remember your own high school days and ask today’s students what they’re getting out of Huck Finn and other canon classics. Then, perhaps, reconsider whether Huck Finn (and at least a few of his brethren) should continue to be steered up the Mississippi river of student interest without a paddle just because that’s the way it’s always been.
“A Dissent on Teaching Huckleberry Finn” originally appeared in Education Week.