by Robert McBride, Jr.
Teaching Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can do more harm than good. I keep this in mind every time I introduce students to the novel, wondering what they will experience when confronting the word "nigger" on nearly every page. I worry that the novel will isolate and alienate African American students. Past students, white and black, have squirmed uncomfortably in their seats as we read passages out loud. Adolescent readers often struggle to appreciate Twain's satiric point of view. Parents and fellow teachers have felt ill at ease with the book. It would be easy to shy away from the controversy this novel generates, but impossible to deny that powerful racial issues mark the American landscape today as they did in Twain's day. When teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, its cultural and social context -- its historic value -- becomes as important as its artistic merit. The novel is more than a work of art. It is an artifact, revealing America's historic and controversial struggle with racism. When I first encountered the upcoming television series Culture Shock, I was immediately drawn to how it could help me teach controversial art such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Looking at controversial art as artifact -- as historical documentation of the politics, ethics, beliefs, and conventions of a time and place -- is at the heart of this new series. It suggests that the arts, and controversies surrounding them, can help viewers think critically about some of the crucial and painful issues of past and present societies. The series profiles, along with Twain's novel, Edouard Manet's painting Olympia, early American jazz, and Hollywood films in the Production Code era, all of which were received by their original audiences with mixed admiration and criticism.
Today, as in the past, we grapple with a key question: Does art reflect our terrors and desires, or project -- and perhaps even promote -- exploration of these emotions? Students must be involved in answering that question. Their access to art is greater than at any time in history. Rather than being cloistered by the church, commissioned and owned by royalty, preserved in palatial museums, or touted in chic salons or galleries, art has became pervasive in our multimedia, image-hungry, print-ready, televised, and Internet-wired world. The analytic skills of observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and researching artifacts are core skills needed in any academic study. More importantly, they transfer into the kind of civic and social skills I want my students to have when they turn on the TV, log onto the Internet, pass a billboard, listen to a CD, or watch a film. Much, if not most, of our knowledge of the past is based on artifacts that have survived the ravages of time. From the mundane stone tool to the most complicated crafts of artisans, artifacts help us reconstruct societies, cultures, and people long gone. Art, the abstract given concrete form, history given flesh -- or, what Picasso said embodied both our "terrors and desires" -- provides us with our most enduring impressions of the people who created and received it. Today's students are bombarded with the artifacts that will make up our historical portfolio for future generations. But television, film, art, music, and advertising seldom present themselves to the students of today in a contextualized and interpreted form. This is exactly why today's censors argue for more control of artistic media, and exactly why students need to acquire the critical skills to examine contemporary art forms and understand their social and civic significance. Interpreting art, especially controversial art, as artifact allows students to be social historians and make use of the same analytic skills that scholars use when they construct history.
Artifact study helps social studies and history teachers overcome several typical classroom challenges. First, there is often a huge gap in knowledge between teachers and students.1 Art/artifact study can close this gap. Art certainly has complex meanings and nuances, but it can be objectified by two simple questions: What is this? and What does it do? Beginning an exploration of cultural artifacts with these questions narrows the knowledge gap between teacher and student because everyone in the classroom is removed in time from the cultural context in which these art forms were created and presented. Everyone in the classroom must suspend the judgment derived from prior knowledge and skill to observe thoroughly what the artifact is and does.
Even before introducing the background information of an artifact, I lead students through a process of observation to determine exactly what we, the historians of today, see, hear, and feel when encountering this artifact. Much like the archeologist in the field unearthing some fragment of ancient glass, we start at ground zero. I present the artifact in the raw for our consideration, pushing students to construct a list of observations from the seemingly important to the relatively minor, reminding them that the minor detail can often be a major find. From our list of observations, we build a list of questions, things we don't know but need to explore in order to better understand and interpret this artifact. These two processes, observing and questioning, are cornerstones of critical thinking. 2 I complete our initial examination of an artifact with a step backward to look at ourselves. I ask students to observe and question what we have chosen as noteworthy about this artifact, inviting them to think about what our observations and questions reveal about us, our society, and culture. The gaps in knowledge between and among my students and me are narrowed through this approach as we build a common knowledge about the object.
Another instructional challenge to teaching any kind of social or cultural history is that the teacher is often dealing with abstractions. I sometimes feel like the Wizard of Oz, pulling every lever of the teaching trade to recreate the grandeur and drama of a bygone time and place when I have only text and fact at my disposal. Artifact study is a direct link to the past, and in that sense can convey information that even the best text cannot. The artifact directly represents the point of view of its creator, and the reactions to it of people who lived in that era make history real and human. 3 Even if the artifact is housed elsewhere and is being represented through a particular medium (e.g., documentary film), technology allows students to have a direct, visceral experience with the artifact through sight and hearing. An artifact calls on students to engage in historic and social research as opposed to reading in a textbook the results of someone else's studies.
Henry Ford's famous aphorism, "History is bunk," often seems to be the mantra of high school students. Their constant questions of "Why are we studying this?" and "How will studying this help me in 'real life'?" have academic merit (if one subtracts the whining aspects) and should be answered. I am constantly asking myself how the historic and social knowledge I present to students will transfer to other classes or life beyond academics; I fear that their knowledge will remain inert. Artifact study helps students transfer knowledge. 4 Indeed, the entire sequence of concepts in each program of this series is designed to help students see the links between historic, present, and future controversies. All of the films in Culture Shock lead students to the next stage of artifact study by providing secondary sources of information. Not only do the programs explore the historic facts that sparked public controversy in each case, but each program links the issues raised at the time to their modern counterparts. The banning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn upon its 1885 publication is linked to the current debate in schools about teaching it; the debut of Manet's Olympia in 1865 is profiled against our attitudes towards women and sexuality today; the violent and sexually provocative films of the 1920s and 1930s that called forth the Hollywood Production Code are compared to modern films and the reaction to them; and criticisms of early jazz are considered along with the reception of rap and hip-hop today.
This series gives art the historical context crucial to understanding it. In the case of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, understanding that historical context makes the difference between the harm and good this novel has the potential to foster. Ultimately, I think the video Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will help my students decide for themselves how to judge the book because they will understand the controversy surrounding it. In the program they will hear many voices: Twain himself; critics of the time who banned the book because of its profanity and immorality; literary critics and scholars today; African American authors from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison; a present-day mother and daughter opposed to the teaching of the book in an Arizona high school; and the response of that school's teachers and administrators. They also will encounter relevant historical information about the word "nigger," slavery, and race politics in the United States when Twain was writing. Finally, they will see that the controversy over the novel has evolved from a morality debate (involving profanity and morally flawed characters) to a race debate (involving racial epithets and the meaning of the depiction of Jim). This evolution speaks volumes about the similarities and differences between Twain's America and ours.
Speaking before several teachers at my high school, African American novelist William Demby stated that works of art studied in schools should be, above all else, honest about human experience, and that teachers should be honest about the works of art. I bristle at the racial hatred and omnipresent word "nigger" in the text of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I cannot deny our national and historic obsession with race. In the face of our race history, I feel an imperative to teach my students the seemingly impossible: how to think analytically about race and racism when there is nothing objective when it comes to these issues. I do not want to form my students' views of this or any other artifact, this or any other social issue, but I do want to inform them so that they can see clearly the artifact for its civic and social implications.
Culture Shock suggests that teaching about an art controversy in its historical and contemporary contexts can help students to think critically about difficult issues. Furthermore, our understanding of, or participation in, the controversy surrounding a work of art reveals as much about our own cultural and social perspective as it does about past attitudes. The controversies surrounding the arts examined in this series are themselves historical facts. An honest study of these controversies sensitizes students to the many points of view that exist in any passionate debate on social issues.
Examining artifacts and the controversy surrounding them has another important result in history and social studies classrooms. It helps students see history as involving many perspectives, or as a culmination of many points of view. Historical and social fact can seem static to students, mere flat information on a page. Returning students to the key questions of "What is this?" and "What does it do?" after examining the context and controversy surrounding a work of art is not quite as easy as observing it in the raw without comment or interpretation. Answering these questions becomes a construction project for history and social studies students. They understand, through the historic study of an artifact and its controversy, that history is a process -- not a product -- and that our understanding of it is in constant evolution as our thoughts on the human experience evolve.
The art profiled in this series was, and in many ways remains, controversial because of its realism. Readers today must confront the pain, past and present, of slavery and racism when reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The courtesan depicted in Olympia is unabashed by her nudity; she detachedly sizes up those who view her, considering each in her audience as a potential client. The painting forced the citizens of Paris to confront the poverty, status of women, and sexual appetites of men that led Parisian women of the late 1800s like Olympia to her profession. Hollywood films such as Scarface and Red-Headed Woman, like many films after them, brought violence, slang, profanity, and sexuality to the silver screen for audiences of the 1920s and 1930s. The energy, raggedness, and syncopations of early jazz frightened moralists who feared the music's many liberating effects on young listeners, ignoring how jazz reflected the uniquely American blend of emotional rhythms, African roots, vitality, and improvisational freedom.
The question for society and schools is whether to confront or reject art that introduces these difficult, uncomfortable, even taboo issues that are in fact very real today. The very issues that spark art controversies are those that few -- if any -- of us completely understand. They are also those very issues that we cannot afford to ignore. Certainly, discussions of race, sexuality, violence, and other sensitive topics can spark controversies in schools themselves. Indeed, Socrates was seen as corrupting youth with the questions he asked. It is easy enough to create a curriculum that avoids controversy and the difficult issues that generate it. Avoidance, however, sacrifices honesty, and does little to lead us forward in confronting the enduring human problems that it is the highest purpose of art to illuminate.
Robert McBride, Jr., is the English Division Head at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Oak Park, Illinois. He has taught both English and history, and served as a consultant on incorporating artifacts into the history curriculum for the Henry Ford Academy at the Henry Ford Museum. He has also been a consultant for three television series produced by WGBH: The American Experience, Africans in America, and Culture Shock.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 (Volume 63, Number 7) issue of Social Education, the official journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, www.socialstudies.org. Reprinted by permission.
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