Huckleberry Finn On Trial at Mamaroneck High School
For the Defense: Dr. Charlotte Frank
By Rich Monetti
America has finally broken down the racial barrier to the highest office in the land, but the debate as to whether students should explore American racism through the reading of Huckleberry Finn probably will never end. Against that backdrop, Mamaroneck High School English Teacher, Dr. Victor Maxwell, uses the ongoing controversy to engage his students in the material and understand both sides of the argument via a moot court trial. “We need to have an ongoing conversation that’s sensitive to our differences,” he underscores. School librarian, Tina Pantginis, provided several court cases involving the book’s banning.
The plaintiff, represented by a student in the role of fictional parent, averred: “I can’t completely stop my child from being exposed to offensive language like the n-word on TV and in the movies, but I shouldn’t have to worry about them reading it in books taught in the school.” Another student plaintiff presented expert sociological testimony showing that some children tend to identify with the racist elements of Huck’s character, while the stereotypical caricature of Jim is demeaning and not necessarily representative of a 19th century slave. Further, the mock sociologist also raised concerns over the child who does not have enough parental support to appropriately guide him/her through the content.
For the defense, Dr. Charlotte Frank, Sr. VP for Research and Development, McGraw-Hill Education and formerly a NYC teacher, supervisor and executive director of curriculum and instruction for the NYC public schools, took the stand and testified that the points of contention should be explored as a chance for growth and understanding. “You lose an opportunity for our young people to confront delicate issues; it’s up to educational infrastructure to assimilate the themes and their relationship to today’s world, regardless of the circumstance of the student,” she stated.
She underscored the value of the novel in providing a blueprint to help overcome the prejudices still plaguing our society. In navigating the river, she said, “Huck and Jim suddenly see each other in a new light; somehow it compels us to examine the biases with which we live.” And the actual history can come across more clearly in the applied format that the novel offers. “You suddenly see they are real human beings,” she said, and context can paint a picture as well or better than a textbook for some students, she added.
Dr. Frank believes that Huck Finn plays an important role in the educational process of both bringing students a “body of knowledge” and developing a set of skills that hopefully enable them to interpret what’s happening around them. “Education is to truly make us understand human beings and that’s what this is,” she said.
In conclusion, the three classes that took part in the trial did not come to a consensus on whether the classic should be viewed within the context of its time and used as an appropriate learning tool or discarded because of its insensitive nature and possible negative influence in society today. One class voted to ban, one to keep the book in the curriculum and one was deadlocked.
Navigating the river of life and books in 2009, despite our technological advances and increased knowledge, is subject to many of the similar currents, storms and societal pressures as Huck and Jim navigated on the Mississippi so many years ago.#