Is Huck Finn too hard?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is too difficult for high schoolers, argues Kent Oswald in Education Week Teacher. He fears it will ruin “teens’ potential interest in serious reading.”

. . . during and after their two-chapter-a-night, test-in-three-weeks slog through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, understand what the book is even about, or have their thinking changed by absorbing how differing contexts have made the tale controversial from its time through today. . . . Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain’s use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. So where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for?

Twain wrote more accessible books and short stories, writes Oswald, who is described as a freelance writer with a master’s in teaching who works (doing what?) “in the White Plains, N.Y., school system.”

In the comments, several teachers say their students enjoy Huck Finn and the discussions it fosters about race.

Yes, I was a precocious reader, but I first read Huckleberry Finn in elementary school. When Huck thinks he’s sinned by helping Jim and decides he’ll willing to go to hell for it . . . I got it. I can’t believe high school students –with a teacher’s help — can’t understand it. At the end, Tom Sawyer says nobody was killed in a steamship accident, then says a slave died. That shocked me. But I got it.

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  1. Tom West says:

    The problem is that saying *anything* meaningful about high school students is pretty much impossible. They’re simply too diverse.

    The question really is “For student group x, what percentage won’t ‘get’ Huck Finn, and is that percentage so high that it outweighs the positives brought to those students who do ‘get’ it.”

    • The fact that many high schools push almost everyone into the college-prep program significantly affects what can be taught. Even the APs are not immune from this; a regular commenter on the WaPo ed section says that large numbers of Prince George County (DC suburb) HS seniors pushed into his AP English classes are unable to read beyond 5th-7th grade level and some can’t do that. But the County mandates at least one AP class for graduation. Square peg, meet round hole. Sigh

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    My youngest, who is a decent but not “gifted” student, read Huck Finn in 7th grade.

    It’s a wonderful, very American book.

  3. Hick Finn does not call for especially advanced reading skills, but it does call for a degree of patience: patience to learn the dialect, to persist through some of the long sections when you can’t see where the story is going, and to put oneself in the shoes of an abused and abandoned rural youth of 170 or so years ago. Teachers really have to prepare students for this experience.

  4. Immigrant from former USSR says:

    My sisters and me, we read the translations of “Tom Sawyer” and of “Huck Finn” into Russian at the age about 9 or 10, and liked these books very much.

  5. greeneyeshade says:

    1 nitpick: Tom doesn’t say the steamship accident killed a slave, he says it ‘killed a n*gg*r.’ [asterisks mine]. When somebody tried to substitute ‘slave’ for the n-word in a new edition a couple of years ago and took a lot of well-deserved flak from both the right and the left, they (and most of the critics I saw) ducked an important point that Twain knew perfectly well: In Huck’s world, a black person, *slave or free*, was a n*gg*r, with, as Chief Justice Taney said in the Dred Scott case, “no rights that the white man is bound to respect.” In his drunken rant on the wrecked steamboat early in the book, Pap Finn asks what kind of country lets a black man vote. Sorry if I’ve gone off on a tangent, but that should be part of any discussion of the book.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Is Huck Finn too hard?

    Well, yes. If you can’t read.

    And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? Reading is like almost everything else: it’s not a “threshold” skill you don’t have one day then do have the next. It’s a “degree” skill that improves with practice and facility.

    And — generalization alert — the fact is that MOST high school students haven’t really put in the time or practice to get any good at reading. They can do it to some degree or another, sure — in the sense that they can look at a page of Huckleberry Finn and recognize the words and even make sense of the sentences. But that’s not really “reading” in the sense that people who are good at it mean the term. (I don’t mean “good” in a relative sense, either; very nearly everyone could be good at reading if they practiced regularly.)

    But I can dribble in place and even make a basket from time to time. That doesn’t mean I am any good at playing basketball.

    I *know* how to play basketball… I’m just not good at it.

    And lots of students *know* how to read. They’re just not good at it.

    • Yes. Far too many ESs are failing to build the proper foundation in anything – aided by weak/flawed curriculum choices and instructional methods. Kids who enter MS with serious deficits are not likely to catch up, so far too many are hopelessly lost by the time they hit HS. Of course, there are also those who simply lack the cognitive ability to do HS-level academic work – and the ed world refuses to acknowledge this. Half of the US school population is below average.

      • Well, half are below median. I’d have to see the statistical distribution to agree half are below average.

        The articles I’ve seen indicate that schools are spending more time on math and reading in the NCLB era, than us old timers got. Is the failure at due to poor curriculum, weak teachers (our usual suspects) or perhaps FAR more screen time than us oldsters ever got? I’m opting for that – phones, computers, tablets; ugh. I’m not sure reading on a Kindle counts as much as paper.

        • Chartermom says:

          I think reading on a Kindle counts as much as paper but the kids who aren’t reading books aren’t reading them on Kindle or paper. I think the screen time issues manifests in another way — access to “Spark Notes” and other online summaries and references. I’ve watched both my boys skate through Honors English classes without really reading the books — instead they simply go to Spark Notes. Now I remember Cliff notes and I know that some of my classmates used them rather than read the books. But unless you were lucky enough to be able to borrow Cliff Notes you had to buy them and you had to hope that the local book store had the notes on whatever book you happened to be reading in class. Therefore just about everyone had to read at least some of the books. Today Spark Notes and other alternatives are easily available on the internet for free. Heck there is even a 9 minute Sparknotes video on Huck illustrated using cartoonish pictures. Even the narration is very simple — simple vocabulary and simple sentence structure (although it makes it all rather dull).

          And to Michael’s comment above about kids who “know” how to read but aren’t very good at it because they don’t practice. That describes one of my sons perfectly — he hates reading and as a result isn’t as good as he should be. And to think this was the little boy who always had a book in his hand and was ready to be read to. My only hope is that fact that one of my brothers was the same way — wouldn’t touch a book while a teen — and he now reads regularly (doesn’t even own a TV).

        • In a normal distribution, the mean and median coincide – unless you are assuming that the US school population is not normally distributed ~

  7. cranberry says:

    Oswald asks, “Shouldn’t Huck Finn (and any number of other books in “the canon” for that matter) be saved as a syllabus item for college literature classes, or maybe just for students in advanced courses where its “controversies” can be considered within a challenging academic context?”

    Well, no. College instructors will expect their students to have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school. If you can’t handle Huck Finn in high school, when will you be ready for The Mill on the Floss?

    Most (all?) high school students are required to take at least a year of US history, as far as I know. Any competent course on US history must cover the Civil War, slavery, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. So, as long as the English teachers and the Social Studies teachers in the same high school take the time to plan a rational course of studies, yeah, Huck Finn is not too hard, nor are the issues too complex.

    None of the novels or short stories he proposes as replacements make any sense in a larger context of educating American citizens, i.e,. why should one prefer Typee? Omoo? The South Seas are more relevant to understanding the world today than the American Civil War?

    It is also a fantasy to dream that students who cannot handle The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school will read Moby Dick as adults, if only they read Omoo instead. It is a fine example of the line of argument which declares the canon too difficult for contemporary students, but has no realistic replacement plan to prepare students to handle *real* college classes. Of course, when the students find they aren’t prepared for their college classes, that’s their problem.

  8. “He fears it will ruin “teens’ potential interest in serious reading.””

    If you haven’t developed an interest in serious reading by high school, isn’t it a little too late?

  9. BadaBing says:

    “Of course, there are also those who simply lack the cognitive ability to do HS-level academic work – and the ed world refuses to acknowledge this. Half of the US school population is below average.”

    Hear, hear. But let’s not talk about the elephant in the room. It’s not always the best policy to be honest, especially in today’s America.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    You can learn a lot by reading, say, Finn, because somebody’s going to have to explain to you what Twain expected his audience to know.
    When Aunt Polly’s glasses were said to be as effective in helping her see as a pair of stove lids, I was lost. My father had to explain wood stove, lids were iron, the whole thing, plus a comment that you couldn’t get a stove lid in England during WW II because the flyers took them to sit on.
    And that was just getting started. History, technology, social conventions. The reader was supposed to know them–which you can tell when the author does not explain them–and we need to be standing by to explain this stuff at least to the younger readers. So reading, say, Huck Finn or Moby Dick, or The Crucible offers a two-fer.

    • Except, if you read Laura Ingalls Wilder before Huck Finn, then you already had a concept of ‘stove lid.’ Or if you’d been to a historic site with an old fashioned stove. Or if your mom had read you picture books about colonial and pioneer times.

      So…we’re actually back to the problem that these books are too hard because the kids lack background knowledge. Not just civil war dates and events, but exposure to historical fiction and field trips to history sights.

      Which the upper middle class give their kids (so Huck Finn makes sense) and the poor and working class don’t (So teachers have to do more work.)

      BUT I’m guessing most TEACHERS don’t see the hangups because they grew up in a richer environment where you would have seen pictures of old-fashioned stoves long before 9th grade.

      Huck is too hard for modern kids because we spend the early grades on ‘reading strategies’ and really basic social studies “A policeman is a person in your neighborhood…in your neighborhood….” instead of rich history and literature.

      As a counter example. My son is going into Kindergarten this fall. (homeschooled). He has NO interest in phonics or reading at this point. BUT he knows a ton about the yellow fever and malaria….. By 9th grade, he’ll be ready to read complicated literature, because he’ll have all sorts of background knowledge. The head start kids who’ve been getting drilled in reading for years won’t.

      The problem isn’t that kids ‘can’t read.’ It’s that they can’t THINK, because no one has bothered to give them anything to think about.

      • they can’t THINK, because no one has bothered to give them anything to think about…

        Or to think WITH – which is how I thought you’d end your post. Too many kids aren’t getting the knowledge (stoarge of facts) OR being asked to develop actual critical thinking.

        Just the other day, the 8 year old made a crack about Amalthea’s horn after hearing the word cornucopia on the radio…I guess that year of home schooling in 1st grade paid off … they really ARE little sponges at that age.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Deirdre. (“when the letter C you spy…” this is tough).
        If you read Little House, somebody would have had to explain stove lids. So it’s a matter of somebody standing by at some time to explain what the authors expected the audience to know.
        Tom Sawyer and the town pump? What’s that all about? And when you think about it, what’s the toilet arrangement? Eeewwww.
        However, my point is not that the kids aren’t prepared to read the books. My point is that reading the books provide a ton of teachable moments, if helping with facts is called a teachable moment.
        Yeah, they’re sponges.
        Doing some Youtube with some guests. The eight-year old wanted bagpipes. Then she asked about men wearing skirts. Kilts, kid, kilts. Pictures? Okay, got the Rovers, “Donald, where’s yer troosers.” Funny, when I heard it but the youtube piece was a tribute to the Black Watch. Who were fighting the bad guys. So i got the BW marching home through Dundee after their turn fighting the bad guys. Lots of kilts, kid. When is it our turn to fight the bad guys? It’s always our turn. Why? Hey, kid, look at these crazy Scottish drummers. Oops. Bedtime coming so ramping it down, I got “Mille Regretz” covered by Paula bar Giese. Why is she dressed like that? Is she old? No, the song is old. Why is the song old?
        I could have kept going, but I suspect her mother might have objected to “Blood upon The Risers”.