A Virginia school district is considering banning two classic works of literature, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” over their repeated use of racial slurs, which one mother found offensive. The books have been temporarily removed from the curriculum until a decision is made over whether to institute a permanent ban.
The easy thing to do here would be to mock relentlessly the special little snowflake culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings, and tell the social justice warriors to get a life. I don’t deny that that would be fun. However, I’d like to take a more serious and — believe it or not — sympathetic tone.
The mother’s complaint, voiced at a school board meeting is as follows: “I keep hearing, ‘This is a classic, This is a classic.’ … I understand this is a literature classic. But at some point, I feel that children will not — or do not — truly get the classic part — the literature part, which I’m not disputing. This is great literature. But there are racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that.”
These two books deal with a period of American history that is in many ways shameful and cruel, but it does not become less shameful or less cruel by ignoring it.
She actually has a bit of a point here. Merely proclaiming a work as “classic” without further explanation is a cop-out that doesn’t really address the problem. After all, “classic” is a subjective classification that can change over time. Many works that were once commercial and critical flops are now considered classics, and some that were immensely popular have fallen out of favor. Instead of just labeling a book as must-read, we should be willing to have a serious discussion of its merits. Children might well not find the books to be compelling or instructive, and that’s a conversation that should happen in the classroom.
We have to read about things we find hateful. We need to read about war and slavery and murder and rape and genocide. We need to read about these things, not because they are good, but because they are evil, and it is important to understand evil if we ever hope to confront it. Denial of history — pretending that the truth wasn’t horrible — will accomplish nothing except perhaps a warm fuzzy feeling inside, a feeling that will be all too fleeting when we repeat history’s mistake due to not understanding or remembering them.
When I was in college, one of my classes held a viewing of “Triumph of the Will,” the infamous Nazi propaganda film. It’s a tremendously evil film that paved the way for torture and genocide, but it’s one that I am very glad I watched. Prior to that viewing, my understanding of the Nazis was a simplistic, “They were bad guys” mentality. Nothing like that could ever happen in America, I thought, because we’re not “bad guys.” After seeing the film, I understood that the German citizens were motivated by concerns over national identity, heritage, economic ruin, and perceived ill treatment at the hands of the rest of the world. These were some legitimate concerns that led to the formation of a brutal government capable of committing some of the world’s worst atrocities.
What I learned is that this sort of thing can happen anywhere where people are frustrated and angry, and that we need to be on guard constantly against it. It’s a film I think everyone should see, and I am not alone.
Similar lessons can be learned from books written during the time of slavery. Books like Huckleberry Finn teach us that people who owned slaves weren’t just “bad guys.” They were complex human beings motivated by a variety of concerns and led into evil by ignorance and a lack of understanding of their fellow man. Recognizing that will help us guard against racism and intolerance in the future, and that’s very important indeed.
However, I also have some respect for the individual choices of parents and students. If the boy in question really was traumatized by reading those words, it is cruel to make him do so, just as it would be cruel to force a young child to watch a terrifying horror movie. No one should be forced to read these books if they really are upset by them, although my personal feeling is that a person’s education is incomplete without reading at least some of the classics. This is why school choice is so important. Instead of robbing the entire school district of the chance to read these books, the mother should be allowed to withdraw her son from the school or pick a different one if she does not like the curriculum.
We will not make the problem of school censorship and the banning of books go away simply by screaming about it. It’s important to understand where parents are coming from and to take their concerns seriously while simultaneously explaining the importance of learning about the country’s past, ugly though it may at times be.
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Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and Director of Research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.