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Censoring the Classics Hinders Search for Values

January 05, 1998|CHRISTINE BARON | Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You may reach her at or (714) 966-4550 and Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County

I have just finished teaching "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Once again, it was an intense experience filled with spirited discussions about racism, violence, the role of the church in society, dysfunctional families and whether we should obey laws we feel are unjust--vital aspects of the human condition.

The novel is often considered controversial, however, and on occasion has met with resistance from parents and students because of its racist setting. Along with this novel are others that we have wrestled with over the years in my English department: "The Grapes of Wrath" (sacrilegious?); "The Scarlet Letter" (immoral?); "Of Mice and Men" (bad language?); "Macbeth" (violent?); "All Quiet on the Western Front" (sympathetic to the enemy?); and "Schindler's List" (too depressing?).

There is, in fact, some context to those criticisms. Some of the characters facing the Great Depression indeed questioned God. Hester Prynne wears that letter "A" for a reason, George does swear a lot, Macbeth's path to power is brutal, the German soldiers of World War I do seem much like ourselves, and, yes, the Holocaust is unremittingly depressing.

That is often a problem with great works of literature. They tend to deal with such topics as faith, love, betrayal, doubt, greed, evil and injustice. It is exactly those timeless issues, in fact, that make them classics.

Avoiding such books and topics for fear of upsetting people would be "safe," but the alternative would be a less thoughtful curriculum that would do a disservice to the education of our children.

Are there ways to deal with those issues and still respect a wide array of beliefs? That's a tough question, but the answer is clearly yes. A number of teachers I know in English as well as in other fields successfully deal with controversial topics. Some of their approaches are worth considering.

These teachers use controversial books and topics as a springboard for discussion. They first insist that students give the writer a fair chance to express his or her views and not jump to conclusions based on a partial or careless reading. It is only within context that valid criticism and reflection can take place.

That there will be a divergence of opinion about what constitutes ethical behavior is a given. In teaching "The Grapes of Wrath," for example, a teacher may start out examining Jim Casey's attitude toward the church and then get other views out on the table.

The important thing is that students have the opportunity to meet the issues through writers like Steinbeck and thus consider where they stand themselves. Being exposed to various perspectives is part of becoming educated.

The way a teacher structures a class discussion of contrasting perspectives is critical. Many who object to controversial books and topics in the classroom are worried about one thing: that their values or their child's values will be dismissed. A thoughtful teacher ensures that all views (other than obviously dangerous or racist attitudes) will be honored. Thus the classroom becomes a safe arena for a real exchange of ideas.

Ideally, teachers also encourage students to carry on critical discussions at home, engaging parents in the quest for understanding. True, students may question some long-held family ideas, but it is by such honest assessment that we ultimately solidify our beliefs. Rethinking one's values is certainly not to abandon them but rather to come closer to who we really are. Sometimes we realize how important certain principles are to us when we try to explain them.

Twain's position on various social issues as revealed in Huck Finn may not be immediately apparent. Its discovery takes careful reading, thought, discussion and reflection. But if the encounter takes place in a supportive classroom with an able teacher at the helm, a mature understanding about not only the past but also our own times can result.

Our young people are increasingly involved in a complex world. They will be all the more ready to deal with its challenges if they learn to consider its contending ideas in a supportive classroom environment.

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