Archive for January 11th, 2011

The n-word controversy: Mark Bauerlein wraps it up in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Earlier today, a friend mentioned that Mark Twain once said something like, “The easiest way to be recognized as a leader is to find a parade and get in front of it.”  I can’t find the quote anywhere — but as Ken Kesey said, I’m sure it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.

And it’s especially fitting in a day the Book Haven achieved a brief flicker of fame via Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blog here. He retraced our steps in the Huck Finn and the n-word kerfuffle — “as far as I know, the controversy began with a blog post by Cynthia Haven here” — and then follows the twists and turns through Sam Gwynn‘s concerns and Alan Gribben‘s explanations to conclude masterfully:

Haven’s selections are illuminating, for in Gribben’s and Gwynn’s explanations the whole problem crystallizes. When Gwynn puts the n-word in CAPS, he registers its force, which explains why he feels justified in deleting it.  This is, however, to give the term a moral meaning that it does not deserve. Yes, the n-word has moral meaning, but in the classroom it should be circumscribed by its historical existence. To grant it so much power today, at this moment, is to be captive to the power it possessed in 1884 and in 1950.

Likewise, when Gribben terms the n-word ”now-indefensible,” he assumes a moral stance toward it that is misdirected. No teacher should approach the language in a book written more than 100 years ago as in a condition of defensible or indefensible. Assigning a work is not the same thing as endorsing it. It is to hold the work up to analysis.  Furthermore, one of the lessons of the assignment should be to recognize that one can analyze something that one deplores. Simply deploring it is not enough, we should tell our students. The deletion of the n-word in the novel does the opposite, teaching students to consult their sensitivities more than their intellects.  Thanks, Cynthia, for bringing the action into the light.

And thank you, Mark, for framing the history so succinctly and the issues so thoughtfully.  We now return to our accustomed obscurity.