What The Wire Can Teach Us About the Huckleberry Finn Controversy What The Wire Can Teach Us About the Huckleberry Finn Controversy

What The Wire Can Teach Us About the Huckleberry Finn Controversy

by Liz Dwyer

January 16, 2011

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?

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?

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What The Wire Can Teach Us About the Huckleberry Finn Controversy