Response

I waited a couple days before commenting on my January 6 post, “Serious or Satire?”, but now I feel I should provide my opinion.

I think Foley must be seriously recommending the elimination of novels using negative terms about African-Americans. If his intent is satire, it’s entirely too subtle. Thus, I wholeheartedly disagree with his arguments.

First, eliminating a piece of literature because it includes derogatory terms is a slippery slop to banning almost anything objectionable. What’s to stop people from eliminating Shakespeare’s plays, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, The Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, and more.

I particularly find the elimination of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn especially ludicrous since Twain specifically used language accurate for the time. Change the voice and language, then much of the intent, charm, and originality is lost. Besides, Jim is the heart of the novel; he is the moral center. His ignorance plays a major role in Twain’s intent, and the language used in reference to African-Americans is supposed to disgust and show society’s hypocrisy. Also, the treatment of Jim by the Phelps family is a particularly sharply biting situation showing society’s hypocrisy towards African-Americans. (On a separate note, I would argue that Huck has not learned at the novel’s end as much as people suggest.)

Plus, eliminating literature because of its age is once again ridiculous in my mind. I have never had difficulties getting the vast majority of my students to enjoy (or at least appreciate) The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Beowulf, and works of the 1800s (Hawthorne, Dickens, Poe, etc.). However, I do think we could do a better job of connecting literature of the past to the present. There may be ways for including more contemporary texts, introducing different mediums, or incorporating technology to create new forms of literature.

Now, in Mr. Foley’s defense he does say students should read these texts but not as part of the regular, required curriculum. He obviously sees value in the literature but does not want students to have to read it. I would again disagree because of the cultural literacy (yes, classical and canonical literacy) society expects of our educated adults. While some do not believe cultural literacy should be a consideration, I do. It may not be the only factor but I believe it should be an influence.

Students do have shorter attention spans and are more easily distracted, but this does not necessarily mean a change in literature to something more fast-paced is the answer. In truth, I have always felt that the way we ask students to read and for what purposes plays a larger role than what the students read. My goal is to entice the students into having a conversation with the text, to discover how they personally relate to the literature, and to identify modern day connections.

Lastly, I believe history is not to be avoided or sugar-coated; in my view, it should be confronted and challenged. Let’s show the students every wart, pimple, scar, and blemish our history (through literature) has to offer. This is also my problem with how I was taught history through my social studies and literature classes; I only got the romanticized versions along with the facts and dates. There was nothing to make history and literature come alive or to make the past interesting; all of our forefathers were perfect and then I memorized 1492, 1776, 1812, 1849, 1865, 1914, 1945, and so on. I became much like Huck Finn in high school: “I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

I could probably go on a lot longer, but it’s late and I’m tuckered. What do you think about Foley’s article?

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5 thoughts on “Response

  1. Clix

    I … hm. I’d like to get rid of the you-must-read-this-particular-work and introduce student choice – in some cases, free choice, and in others, choosing from a list. So I guess I agree with his conclusion, but for completely different reasons!

    Sometimes I think a work can ossify as part of the canon. I don’t agree that we should teach certain works just because it’s Tradition; we should teach works that are valuable, meaningful, exciting, delightful pieces of literature. And we should help students see the value, meaning, excitement and delight of those pieces. (My guess is that this would be much harder to do if we don’t see it either!)

    Cultural literacy has more to do with the ideals & values that are part of our heritage than with specific poems or stories or plays. Granted, those ideals are likely to be woven throughout canonical works – but they’re also to be found in works that are currently popular.

    I’m uncomfortable with the feeling that classical pieces deserve some kind of reverence – that I owe them some kind of respect. I don’t. The works that gain my respect will be the ones that have made a difference to ME. To pretend otherwise is to tell students that you’re only worth anything until you’ve been dead at least fifty years.

    Reply
  2. John Spencer

    Books with offensive language provide an opportunity to explore cultural perceptions, social contexts and philosophical worldviews. When my eighth graders read “The Jungle” many were shocked with the use of the “N Word” which led to a great discussion of what gives the word its power (and taboo). I read some of the Confederate literature to them, which completely surprised them. All of this became a part of a larger dialogue about race, politics, socioeconomics and government/economic theory. By censoring old works, we send the message that the past was beautiful and nostalgic and that we can’t trust students to think critically.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: “Satire or Serious?” Part II « The Doc Is In

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