Huck Finn, Hostile? Hardly.

February 13, 2011

In their new book, Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that after two years of college, 45 percent of students show no improvement in critical thinking and complex reasoning. A week after that study appeared, NewSouth Books announced that its forthcoming Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has been purged of the troubling word "nigger."

Let us connect the dots.

The elimination of "nigger" is presented not as censorship but as a rescue mission to save Huck Finn from oblivion, because many secondary schools will not teach material that makes students uncomfortable. Indeed, according to the introduction to the new edition, "Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative." The sacrifice of just one word—one nasty, offensive, mean-spirited little word—is a small price to pay for returning one of the great works of American literature to the reading lists from which it has been expunged. So the argument runs.

The most compelling issue raised by NewSouth's announcement is not the publisher's treatment of Huck Finn or of the word "nigger," but its unquestioning acceptance of the underlying premise that this nation's educational system should, or even can, avoid making people uncomfortable. Despite robust public debate on matters of race, ethnicity, religion, and politics, educational settings are increasingly conceptualized as safe havens in which students must not be subjected to a "hostile learning environment," which is defined as a place in which they may be faced with issues, ideas, or viewpoints that they find offensive.

In 1978, as a graduate student at Penn State, I was the only woman in a statistics course. Among the other students in the small class were two Middle Eastern men who objected loudly to the presence of a woman. The professor asked me to sit in the back of the room, out of their line of vision, and not to speak. In his view, that arrangement represented a reasonable balance between my right to take the course and the men's right to demand respect for their cultural sensitivities. When my inability to ask questions in a timely way, as the other students could and did, caused me to seek help outside of class, I was assured that women often have trouble competing intellectually with men in math-based courses. That is a hostile learning environment. Obviously, that is also an extreme example. Nevertheless it serves to illustrate that a hostile learning environment is one in which a student is denied equal access to the content of instruction.

There can be no doubt that the stark reality of racism in America, past and present, is embarrassing, troubling, infuriating, and generally uncomfortable. It is certainly so for many students of color, and, for different reasons, for many white students as well. In the view of some educators as well as critics of the education system, those negative feelings obstruct the learning process. The students' ability to learn, we are told, may be impeded when they do not feel at ease in their surroundings, and the introduction of emotionally troubling material disturbs the karma.

In reality, being required to confront difficult, embarrassing, and controversial matters and to learn how to deal with them does not constitute a hostile learning environment. It constitutes education.

There is no perfect solution to this dilemma, if a perfect solution is defined as one in which our educational system pre­sents challenging material and facilitates a realistic view of the past and present without exposing students to ideas and information that they may find offensive.

No evidence suggests that the omission of certain words or topics from the classroom will lead to their eradication from the culture at large, where they are expressed in an unbridled and often brutal manner. Paradoxically, what such a policy obstructs is the very activity that has the best chance of improving social understanding and strengthening the educational process: the honest and comprehensive consideration of these matters in a setting whose purpose is to promote respect for diversity as well as intelligent, measured discussion of difficult issues.

Far more research must be done to determine why so many college sophomores show no gains in critical thinking and complex reasoning. It is probable that multiple causes will be identified. As we begin the search for likely suspects, perhaps the effects of an educational system that shelters students from bad words, such as "controversy" and "discomfort," would be a good place to start.

Joan DelFattore is a professor of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Knowledge in the Making: Academic Freedom and Free Speech in America's Schools and Universities, recently published by Yale University Press.