Thursday, January 6, 2011

Just Say No to Nonsense: Kamil, Wiggins and Poor Huck - Why Literature Matters

Ever since Nancy Reagan first uttered her anti-drug slogan, Just Say No, it has been co-opted for all sorts of situations such as  Proposition 19, taxes, and now—fiction in the classroom. I first heard about the just say no to reading fiction in classrooms a few years ago while I was attending of all things—a reading conference.  Michael Kamil concluded a keynote speech about the shift to including more informational texts on the NAEP assessment by saying that he had never learned anything from fiction.  Not sure I had actually heard him correctly, I spoke with him after his lecture.  I immediately brought up James Joyce, not only because I come from Dublin, but also because well, I am pretty sure it would be impossible to read Dubliners, Portrait or Ulysses and come away having learned nothing.  It has been my experience that all fiction leads to the possibility of learning.  Nonetheless, Kamil was adamant and reiterated that he had not learned anything from fiction. I wondered then, as I do now, if he believed that only that which could be measured by national and state tests was representative of important learning given the context of his talk. 

More recently, in the Education Week blog, Teaching Now, Caroline Cournoyer posed the question: Should We Ban Fiction Books from Schools? The question was raised in response to a Center for Education Policy report indicating that girls outperform boys on reading measures internationally.  Cournoyer dedicates most of the blog to quoting Grant Wiggins who indicated that in response to the "boy reading crisis," most fiction should be banned from classrooms. Bold words for sure. Cournoyer writes:
ASCD blogger and president of an education consulting firm Grant Wiggins ... thinks schools should ban most fiction books from the curriculum altogether because they don't prepare students for the future, when the bulk of the reading they'll do as adults is non-fiction. And, he says, fiction bores boys.
"I recall with horror having to read Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne as a student," Wiggins says. "Worse, look at current favorites in younger grades, such as Sarah Plain and Tall: utterly boring, with no action and endless overly-fine detail for page after page."
With books like this, he says, it is easy to see how boys have become uninterested in reading.
Let me first say that anytime someone is making a claim for something better based on preparation for a fictive future, I am alert and concerned.  I often wonder whose vision of "the future" is being privileged and what is lost given that particular point of view.  As a mom, I want my son to love the pleasure of reading. Regardless of the life he composes, I hope this for him.  As such I am joyful each and every time he reaches for a book to read.  I am less concerned with the text type as I know reading often inspires more reading.

With all of that aside—Kamil and Wiggins nonetheless undervalue narrative text (what they call fiction) and fail to understand that meaning does not reside in any text, but rather is composed during one's transaction with a text (See Louise Rosenblatt).  As such, there is no "extra" meaning or value in informational text, which often includes narrative structures (just think Loren Eiseley or Bill Bryson).  Nor will eliminating particular types of text cause boys to desire to read. Empowerment cannot be realized by eliminating choice. 

If all of this wasn't bad enough, at the same time Wiggins is spouting his anti-fiction rhetoric, Auburn English Professor Alan Gribben is guiding NewSouth Books in "improving" Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the "N" word with slave and replacing Injun with Indian. Gribben  says he is doing this in order to increase readership.  He is quoted as saying, "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified."

I think he is right to expect that many will be horrified, textual purist and not.  Whereas I do empathize with Gribben's assessment that teaching Huck Finn is challenging, sanitizing the text undermines its power and the reader's.  I can recall the deliberateness with which I approached the novel each time students and I read the text, taking time to explain to students that the representation of people of color in the text surely would be painful to read.  This is not so different  than the talk we would have had when reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal".  Racial and ethnic hatred hurts and pretending such hatred was and is not real does not make it so. What NewSouth Books fails to understand is that an important teaching point requires the accuracy of the text as Twain wrote it.  A teacher's work is to help students understand how the casual and consistent use of racial slurs by young Huck and other Whites in the story represent the dominant culture's beliefs about the value of people of color at both the time of the novel's setting and the time in which Twain is writing.  Against such beliefs, Twain situates Jim as the moral compass in the text and it is a triumphant moment when young Huck decides he can't pray a lie (from Chapter XXXI):
 It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie — I found that out.
   So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
   Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
   I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
   It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
   "All right, then, I'll GO to hell" — and tore it up.
Readers deserve the actual text, not a sanitized one.  However painful that trip down the river with Huck and Jim is, it is pain worth coming to name.  That is the art.  Such important learning cannot be named if we remove the text from the classroom because it is fiction or we offer students a sanitized version in order to make it "acceptable".  Neither should happen and we should say so often and loudly.

In Burn this Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word, a collection of essays by writers about the power of the written word  and censorship, Toni Morrison asserts in the opening essay, "Peril," that it is our very lives that are jeopardized when writers' voices are silenced and removed—a perspective that Kamil, Wiggins, and Gribben would do well to understand.  Morrison (2009) writes:
And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists' questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—the thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on people are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the good-will of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are a necessity.
Morrison would have us understand that literature, in all its various genres, matters deeply and is a necessity--one we need to ensure continues. It is no less important than water and air.  Reading literature helps us to shape the meaning we make in our lives and helps us to imagine other possibilities of the lives we want to live and lives others do live.  It is wrong to remove fiction from classrooms and to remove an author's words from a text.  Both are terrible lies.

As Huck comes to know, he'd rather go to hell, than pray a lie.  We should be willing to do likewise.


  1. I can't agree with you more. The kind of thinking that wants to take fiction out of schools is the same that wants to take the arts out. After all how often will we paint, or play an instrument or act in a play....? These are the things that make us human - the sense of wonder and questioning that comes from fiction, the opportunity to discuss topics that matter - not just the how to's. I think non-fiction should have an important place but not by eliminating fiction.

  2. So true, Susan. I think you are right about the arts and the potential for the same "logic" to be used to eliminate the arts from schools as well as fiction.

  3. Our classrooms are full of non-fiction. Our students see it all around them. They live this world, and are full of math and science and (some) history. We read non-fiction in our classes - articles, essays, etc, but when you ask a student to select a piece of work, nine times out of ten, that student chooses a piece of work he or she can escape into for a little while, and one, I might add, from which they learn multitudes about how to navigate a world that is full of all kinds of hurtful words. The "N" word is hurtful, as are many other slurs, but to negate their existence in literature is to negate non-fiction in literature. Was such a word never used? I often wonder why some are so quick to erase a past from which we should all be learning. The Holocaust was an ugly thing too...should we forget? People like these make me frightened of a future that is filled with more fiction than they will allow in our classrooms.

  4. The idea that students learn nothing from fiction is spurious and counter-intuitive. I have offered many non-fiction books to my unengaged readers in the genre of sports, history and self-help with a result similar to the fiction offerings; the books remain unread, discarded with the bindings pristine. I do agree with Wiggins that there is a literary gender gap. Forcing a male student to read Jane Eyre is as productive as requiring the female students to read Captain Blood. Yet to boldly state that there is no value to fiction is like saying our math curriculum should eliminate algebra because nobody needs it to do their taxes. Non fiction may teach a specific set of facts, but fiction instructs us on how to live life. I can tell you precisely what I've learned from fiction. Odysseus taught me to suppress my pride, Pip taught me to appreciate the people who care for me, Huck taught me to follow my conscience even in the face of society's dictates. In short, I have learned more of value from any one piece of fiction than I ever learned from a technical manual, lab report or journal article.


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