Jan. 20, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab
Faculty finds rewriting classics troubling
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn,” is not the way Slippery Rock University librarians, faculty and staff want to see literature’s future.
But the publisher of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” announcement that it would revise Twain’s prose to eliminate the “N” word and soften other terms now seen by many as racially insensitive when a new edition is published next month, has many wondering what’s next. Twain’s book was first published in January 1885.
“Part of the beauty of literature is that it represents the period in which it was written and can, therefore, teach us about history in fascinating ways,” said Catherine Rudowsky, assistant professor of library in SRU’s Bailey Library. “Changing the language of the time doesn't make sense to me. Rather, educating our students about the time in which Twain wrote and the time in which Huck Finn ‘lived,’ while discussing the novel in the classroom, would be a valuable learning experience.”
Martina Malvasi-Haines, also an assistant professor of library at Bailey, agrees with her co-worker.
“It is like rewriting history,” she said. Jane Smith, assistant professor in Bailey, adds, “What a shame. Our students need to learn about history as it was, not a cleaned up version.”
“I object to the plan,” said Philip Tramdack, Bailey Library director. “I am opposed to all forms of censorship, and this is censorship,” he said.
NewSouth Books, the publisher, has said it hopes the new version won’t be banned by some schools because of the language. The plan is to replace some 220 uses of the “N” word with the word “slave.” There will also be changes in offensive words related to Native Americans in the revised version.
For Rachela Permenter, SRU professor of English, the idea, while understandable, is not acceptable for high school and college curricula and for the general public.
“I understand the idea behind the revision. There are middle school teachers who are afraid to teach the text because they, or their students, can’t handle the words. The original idea was that it had to be revised for that situation, but the original text should not be changed. It is changing the meaning; it changes the texture and it changes the historical context in a way that prevents positive discussions about race in America. It is just not a good idea.”
Permenter called for the updated version to carry a title that makes it clear it is not the original work. “Maybe they should name it ‘The Idiot’s Guide to Huck Finn,’” she said.
“It is deeply distressing that in the 21st century, we are still trying to water-down, in the name of shielding our children, the language of narratives that reveal the historically situated diversity of human relationships and how those relationships change. The United States, like many countries, has a violent history littered with events and practices about which we are now ashamed and seek to change as we strive to achieve our ideals of equality. How can we commit ourselves to achieving social justice if we have an inaccurate, ‘white-washed’ account of where we were. The proposed sanitized version of ‘Huck Finn’ obfuscates our history and damages our ability to educate for change,” said Jace Condravy, SRU professor of English.
Education officials report that Twain’s “Finn” has been removed from grade school reading lists, moved to “optional” reading lists or banned entirely in some districts based on the “offensive words” it contains.
NewSouth’s plan calls for including “Huck Finn” in a dual volume with Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” as part of the new publication.
For John Hicks, assistant professor of secondary education/foundations of education who teaches SRU education majors how to teach English literature classes when they become teachers, the issue is different.
“In all of my classes, I urge students to become involved in national organizations such as the National Council for Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, so they will have a voice in setting school curriculums and will not be tackling the job on their own.”
“It is obvious that most first-year teachers are not going to be able to set their own curriculum, including what books are taught in literature classes. We urge our students to spend time with the principal or superintendent, sometimes even the board of education, when they are hired outlining what books they intend to use and their reasons. In some communities this is a major point of controversy, with the board setting the reading curriculum. In others, less so. But new teachers need to make sure their teaching plans meet expectations. Some teachers may find they are not a good fit for a particular school because of their own view of education and what should be taught. We want our teachers to be passionate about what they are teaching, and we want them to lead in their programs.”
Hicks, who taught literature classes at a number of school districts before joining the SRU faculty, recalls he once taught Joseph Conrad’s 1902 “Heart of Darkness,” which was adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in his 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.” “It was in a small conservative Catholic high school. The book is certainly an ‘R-rated’ for its foul language, but the district had no trouble in having it taught. It was a tradition before I came, and it shows that what is or can be taught depends in large part on the community.”
Hicks said, he has used abridged versions of some books, not because of censorship, but because the abridged version helped his students improve their reading skills. “Sometimes the original version of a book like ‘Huck Finn’ is too difficult for a struggling reader, or possibly a younger reader. The abridged version weakens the vocabulary or may gloss over certain plot points, but the student masters the reading, so the end result is positive.”
“I think reasoned discourse among educators and the community, including faculty and the school board is the only way to solve such problems,” he said. “I have been lucky in meeting with school boards to discuss new trends for the curriculum. Some districts require sticking to the text of the textbook, while others allow supplemental materials to be part of the class.”
“Those joining a school district should review the moral code of the community in which the district is located. We tell them to make sure their curriculum has been approved by the board before they begin. They need to feel comfortable that what they want to teach will be accepted by the community, or either seek to change the community, or move to a different district.”
Hicks also recommends his students become familiar with the censorship issue by reading information available on the Internet at: http://www.ncte.org/action/anti-censorship which offers free advise to those facing censorship issues regarding literary or film works, drama productions or teaching methods.
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