Huck Finn and the bias biddies

While new Common Core State Standards call for students to read classic literature, tests will avoid “emotionally charged language,” race, sex, religion or anything that anyone might find offensive, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, in How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom.

The standards say students should to read “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

However, test aligned to the new standards must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out “race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, is writing questions “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language” and “reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” Bauerlein writes. There will be no “religious references” either.

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review — too many white men — and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive — Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

In addition to a sanitized, bias- and content-free test of reading skills, developers should add “a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.”

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The essay test would see “how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens,” Bauerlein concludes.

But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    And this is why public schools should be privatized or semi-privatized. In the “public” sphere we need to be all things to all people. We need to focus on quality literature and teach seminal works –but we cannot offend. It’s an impossible task. Open charters, provide vouchers, and let citizens determine where they’re priorities lay – with the authentic literature or the political correct version. The baby will die if you cut it in half. If this doesn’t happen Common Core will end up as the top of heap in the pile of failed “reform” initiatives.

  2. Isn’t good literature MOSTLY about conflict?

  3. And then there’s the Bible (I’m not recommending that students read it, other than in a World Religion or Literature class, but students are exposed to it all the time). On a more serious note, this guideline plays out differently depending on the age of the students, I hope. I have certainly seen supposedly elementary-aged books that had themes and events way to troubling for kids in K-6. Not great literature, just children’s books. But by high school you have to hope that kids have been exposed gradually to enough stories with conflict, including conflict between groups, to be able to handle Huck Finn or The Scarlet Letter.

  4. But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?

    The whole POINT of sensitivity guidelines is to deconstruct the literary canon and Western Civ along with it.

  5. lightly seasoned says:

    Oh, standardized tests are always vetted for bias/sensitivity. They’d just be selective about what passages they pull. In any case, Huck and Hester are still standard public school fare around here. Our juniors do them back-to-back.

  6. Return power to local control. Get the feds out of education and back to fixing roads and railroad tracks.

  7. I had both my sons read Huck Finn. What impressed me the most, when I re-read it, was Huck’s reluctance acceptance of Jim.

    An interesting YA novel that teaches toleration, humanity, acceptance and standing up to accepted norms, for the greater good.

    Yeah, not something we would want our children to be exposed to, I guess.