School curricula should not shield students, but let them think for themselves

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Principal Art Hall of Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa., has decided that Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" should be removed from the school curriculum, presumably because of the use of a pejorative referring to African-Americans. In doing so, Hall may have provided an unexpected bonus for his school: the chance for a new course that examines the merits of works such as "Beloved" (by Toni Morrison), "The Color Purple" (Alice Walker), "Gone With the Wind" (Margaret Mitchell), "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (Harriet Beecher Stowe), "To Kill a Mockingbird" (Harper Lee), etc., all of which use the same word with varying frequency.

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Of what is Hall afraid — the discovery that there is still racism in America? Of course there is, because the world is tribal, and racism is ubiquitous. What Hall ignores is that the uniqueness and glory of the United States revolve around two facts essential to the fabric of this country: We are actually embarrassed by our racism, and we protect our minorities legally, if not always morally. We strive on a daily basis to rid ourselves of our racism, but we're fighting against the ingrained fear of anyone not exactly like ourselves, and the battle cannot help but be protracted.

What Hall chooses to ignore to the detriment of his students is that history is evolutionary. You don't end slavery without having had it. You don't stop using a word if it was never used in the first place. You don't work to abolish prejudice without admitting that there is something to abolish. Hall may have forgotten that we did not get rid of slavery for any reason other than that it was plain wrong, an abomination. Every region of white, antebellum America had people who benefitted from slaves, whether through use, trade or shipment. But decent people realized the magnitude of the crime of slavery in its every manifestation, and 300,000 Union troops were willing to lay down their lives to end it.

Yet that was not the end of racism in the United States, as any student of Reconstruction can point out. But one must understand the sorrows of racism during that period as well as the decades following to appreciate the glories of the 1960s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Declaration of Independence hinders us somewhat in appreciating what we've done. Its bromide that all men are created equal is ridiculous on its face, and has given generations the wrong idea. I don't have a great jump shot, and don't get paid a salary of $20 million a movie, but I can try out for a team or take a screen test. What the Declaration of Independence should have said is that all men (and women) would have an equal opportunity under the law to achieve according to ability. Neither our government, nor protest groups, nor any of us individually can make us all equal. However, we can see to it that everyone gets a chance, and that every type of authority treats us equally. Hall would have us forget how we've gotten as far as we have, i.e., how we've reached a time when neither U.S. presidents nor high school principals have to be white.

There's another rather basic principle at work here. What Hall is saying to us is that we're too stupid to make up our own minds. "Huckleberry Finn" profoundly demonstrates the cruelty of stratified society, and is an object lesson from which any high school student should be able to benefit. But Hall has a better idea. Rather than let his students, with the participation of what I assume is a talented faculty, make up their own minds about the book, he's going to tell them that they have neither the intellect nor the insight to make their own decisions.

Since Hall is the principal of his school, he can get away with his shenanigans. But other questions come to mind. What other books will he ban? Will sexuality or atheism be the next excuse? How does he propose to shield his student body from movies like "Mississippi Burning," which depicts racism at its most foul, but has the good guys winning in the end? What's he going to do about the First Amendment, which allows Nazis to march in our streets, protestors to harass women in front of family planning facilities, and misguided clergy to demonstrate at military funerals?

Wake up, Mr. Hall. Your students deserve to read and think about great literature, not to be shielded from it. Were I a parent with a child in your school, I'd be transferring that child to a school which values education over small-mindedness and a reverse sort of bigotry. If you feel the need to censor literature, save it for your own home.

Blady, M.D., is a former program officer for the under secretary of Defense for policy and senior analyst for the under secretary of Defense for intelligence.

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