What The Wire Can Teach Us About the Huckleberry Finn Controversy

Why do we censor the language and ideas that students are taught in school while ignoring the harsh realities of their lives?

What do you get when you cross education expert, author and NYU professor Diane Ravitch with the HBO series The Wire, and then throw in the Huckleberry Finn controversy? A smart questioning of why it is that we censor the language and ideas that students are taught in school, even as we refuse to deal with the controversial things kids are exposed to in real life.

Ravitch is the author of the 2003 book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. In the text, she details the great lengths school districts and publishing companies go to in order to sanitize the books, plays and poems students read. It turns out Huckleberry Finn isn't an isolated case of censorship. In a piece for Education Week's "Bridging Differences" blog, Ravitch writes,

Education publishers and state agencies routinely excise language and topics that might offend almost every imaginable group—whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or disability. In my research, I discovered that publishers and state agencies were sanitizing the language of John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Carson McCullers, Herman Melville, and other well-known writers.


Ravitch then details how a friend urged her to give The Wire a chance. Despite her personal dislike of profanity, Ravitch put the lauded series about the drug trade and the Baltimore Police Department in her Netflix queue. She's up to season three—and she's hooked—which led to her reflections on the decision to replace the n-word in Huckleberry Finn with the word "slave."

I thought about The Wire in context of the controversy over Huckleberry Finn for this reason. The n-word is used constantly. So is the f-word. Take away those two words and half the script would disappear. Black gangsters use the n-word freely to describe one another; so do the cops. To my knowledge, no one has protested to HBO or the producers. This is popular culture, so who cares?


She goes on to note the strangeness of this given that, "Our schools are cleansed of all that is troubling, offensive, and challenging, while our popular culture deals bluntly, graphically, and harshly with the ugliest realities of our time."

Ravitch's point is that students already hear the n-word in modern pop culture—and some of them already use it. Issues of race are also not absent from students' lives. Instead of avoiding socially controversial subjects, schools should tackle them through the reading and rigorous analysis of American literature.

Why doesn't that happen? In our everyday lives most of us steer clear of conversations about the very themes that Huckleberry Finn addresses. We have a black president, and most Americans rarely have rational, real conversations about slavery, historical racism, or its modern day equivalent. And, until school districts start offering high quality professional development for teachers—and train them how to appropriately teach Huck Finn—the sanitizing of the book might be the lesser of two evils.

A mismanaged classroom discussion about Huck Finn can be worse than not addressing some of the complex issues it raises at all. I vividly remember being one of two black students in my middle school English classroom—and when it came time to read Huckleberry Finn, my teacher didn't have a clue how to talk about the n-word, race, slavery, or the historical context of the book. The classroom "discussions" were a nightmare. It wasn't long till my parents were in the principal's office to complain.

I doubt my teacher had ever been trained to teach a text with controversial language or subject matter. Years later, that hasn't changed in our nation's schools. So, instead of spending the money to invest in teacher training, it's easier for school districts to purchase sanitized books and identify words that can't be said in classrooms.

Of course, if we're going to throw in the towel and drop the n-word from Huckleberry Finn, I'm with Ravitch—I'm not in favor of the word "slave" being the replacement. Instead, I defer to an idea from author Mat Johnson. He's smartly suggested that we replace the n-word in Huckleberry Finn with "zombie". He even created a #zombieHuckFinn hashtag on Twitter.

Johnson might be on to something. After all, if we really want today's teens to perk up in English class, the supernatural is a hot commodity (witness the Twilight phenomenon). Sure, another generation of kids will miss the opportunity to learn the deeper themes of Huckleberry Finn and understand its context in American history, but at least student engagement will soar, right?

via Honor Africans / Twitter

The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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