Atticus Finch, Huck Finn expelled from Duluth Public Schools reading lists

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These days, it's Atticus Finch himself who could use a defense lawyer. Associated Press

To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will no longer be required reading in Duluth public schools, a move that strikes two of the most widely read books in American history from classroom curriculums.

The school district pulled the books from curriculums following concerns the novels’ liberal use of racial slurs makes some students uncomfortable, as reported by the Duluth News Tribune

The district had received complaints for years about the novels’ language, curriculum and instruction director Michael Cary told the Tribune, and administrators and school principals debated the implications for months before reaching a decision in January.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” said Cary.

The novels’ removal generated a wave of dissent on social media.

 

The district's English teachers were not consulted before the final decision was made, according to Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

“The idea that we can scrub all uncomfortable language from education really undervalues what teachers do,” said Nora Pelizzari, communications director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “These books can’t simply be dismissed as 'out of touch.'”

Pelizzari said the racial slurs that appear copiously throughout both novels may make some people uncomfortable, but it’s better if students encounter that language in a classroom where it can be analyzed and given historical context.

“Part of the lessons of those books is the emotional reactions they create,” she said. “These books need to be assessed in their completeness, not in their individual words.”

Kathryn Campbell, chair of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English Intellectual Freedom, says following this decision, the Duluth district should commit to "making space for teacher-focused conversations on the best curriculum," given the district's "increasingly diverse student body."

Campbell says administrators should have included teachers in this decision, but concedes "the district was responding to complaints spanning a number of years that centered around equity."

University of Minnesota Duluth Associate Professor of English Evan Brier said that when read in context, both novels can help students understand race issues in America, but it’s important that teachers address the language in a sensitive way.

“There’s nothing magical about these specific books,” he said.

The novels will still be available in school libraries and as optional reading for students.

This isn’t the first time either novel has been removed by a school district. Both books' depictions of racism routinely appear on the American Library Association’s list of top ten "most challenged" books in any given year.

One of the first attempts to ban To Kill a Mockingbird was in Eden Valley, Minnesota in 1977 -- not because of the N-word, but because it contained the words “damn” and “whore lady."


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