February 14, 2018
A Minnesota school will no longer assign all students to read Mockingbird and Huck Finn
by Alex Primiani
While Florida school administrators are still questioning the validity of science textbooks, a school district in Duluth, Minnesota is having a more fruitful and important conversation about literature’s relevance in changing times.
For the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Pam Louwagie writes about the decision to remove two influential works of American literature from the district’s mandatory curriculum: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And it’s not because of pissed-off parents or sensitive students — teachers and administrators hope to assemble a more contemporary and diverse reading list for their own diverse high school students.
Louwagie interviewed Brian Jungman, a teacher at Denfeld High School, who was one of the first to question what role a book like To Kill A Mockingbird still played in an English class. Looking at the changing demographic in his own classes and describing the classic as “dated,” he explained, “That book now to me reads like it was written to explain racism to primarily a white audience. My African-American population doesn’t need to have racism explained to them.”
For the Duluth News-Tribune, Lisa Kaczke spoke with Michael Cary, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. According to Cary, the decision wasn’t triggered by any one particular complaint, but rather the accumulation of many over a period of years. “We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” he says.
“One camp would be maybe an older guard that would identify the American literary canon as a precious cultural art development and want it to be protected and preserved,” explained John Schwetman, an assistant professor who teaches American literature at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The other camp favors “a healthy conversation about literature … acknowledging changing reading tastes, changing values, changing concerns of readers.”
Of course, one could argue that the protection and preservation of a canon might well call for the occasional pruning. Canonical works of American literature certainly reflect long outdated social realities.
A truly representative selection of literature can never truly be static. It’s been partly through books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn that the values of varying perspectives, empathy, and critical thinking have become conventional wisdom. To look on those books now without holding them to those values seems counterintuitive, and probably antithetical to the authors’ own wishes.
Updating a school curriculum to include more diverse voices—diverse in color, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, abledness, and more—might alleviate some discomfort for students. More importantly, it also encourage many students with strong identities to take up a more positive view of their own roots in the American story.
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.