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Peter Salwen <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 11 Mar 1998 18:41:16 -0500
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Barbara Schmidt wrote:

"There is an online article today
in the March 10 edition of the San
Francisco Examiner related to schools'
required reading lists. It touches upon
the Huck Finn controversy.

"The article, titled 'School book list
"too white,"' is available at:

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According to Julian Guthrie's article in
the Examiner, the San Francisco school board
will soon overhaul the city's required-reading
lists so that up to seven of every 10 books
will be by "authors of color."

Board member Steve Phillips -- who
the Examiner says "was an English major
in college and has always loved
literature" -- co-authored the measure.

"In a district that is nearly 90 percent
students of color, the point of education
is not to glorify Europe, but to let
students see themselves in the curriculum,"
Phillips said.

Keith Jackson, Phillip's co-author and
fellow literature-lover, added, "I really
see this as a way to help African American

A third Board member, Dan Kelly, emphasized
the importance of presenting what he called
"works that have a broader range of
cultural experiences."  He noted that
"Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn,' for
instance, has a bias against African
Americans. And Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales,'
while a great work, has an economic bias.
It characterizes people based on their

The board members are on the right track,
but in my opinion they don't go nearly far
enough.  They should read "Huckleberry
Finn."  If they did, they might be surprised
and gratified to find that Huck himself
is squarely on their side.

Early in the book, when the Widow Douglas
takes Huck in to be her adopted son, one
of first things she does is to get out
her Bible and start to "learn" Huck
about "Moses and the Bulrushers."

"I was in a sweat to find out all
about him," Huck says.  "But by and by
she let it out that Moses had been dead
a considerable long time; so then I didn't
care no more about him, because I don't
take no stock in dead people."

I think the lesson is obvious.  If
"the point" of education is "to let
students see themselves in the curriculum,"
what possible excuse could there be for
requiring (presumably) living students
to learn about dead people?  None.

If we assume that an African American
student can identify only with African
American characters, or an Asian student
with Asians, how can we expect a living,
breathing student to identify with a
character who -- though perhaps through
no fault of his own-- has the misfortune
to be deceased?  We can't.

I say, get rid of all books about
dead people.  And just to be safe,
we should get rid of books by dead
people, too.

This advantages of this plan become
clear the more you consider it.

For one, it would eliminate those
irritating complaints about "political
correctness run amok," since Richard Wright,
James Baldwin, and Booker T. Washington
would hit the road along with the likes
of Twain, Dickens, and Chaucer.

Getting rid of dead characters would also
shorten the reading lists to a much more
manageable length -- perhaps even to the
point where some school board members
might be able to master them.

Finally, my plan would have the enormous
benefit of freeing up large areas of
precious shelf and storage space in the
school libraries.  This space could then
be much better used for computers, software,
and multi-media systems, thus helping to
beter prepare today's "information-age"
students for life in the 21st Century.

-- Peter Salwen

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"In the first place God made idiots.
This was for practice.  Then
He made School Boards."

-- Mark Twain