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Bad Words

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJanuary 6, 2011 5:23 PM


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Bit of a skirmish in the culture wars this week, as word spread that the publisher NewSouth Books is coming out with a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The notable feature of this expurgated edition is that they have removed all 219 appearances of the word “nigger,” replacing them with the word “slave.” (They’ve also removed “Injun,” although this doesn’t push people’s buttons quite as directly.)

Count me with those who think this is an incredibly dumb move. The motivation is clear, and quite sensible — high-school teachers who have assigned the book have found that many young black students react viscerally to the word, and have trouble putting it into a harmless historical box. I can believe that’s true. But if, in the judgment of the teachers, this creates such a barrier that it does more harm than good to assign the book, the answer is extremely obvious — don’t assign the book. Maybe you can encourage your students to read the book on their own, with appropriate warnings about the content and explanations of its historical context. I think it’s a good book for everyone to read, but that’s different from insisting that the reading be mandatory.

What you absolutely don’t do is change the book to fit your idea of what is appropriate. It’s cowardly, untrue to history, and massively unfair to Mark Twain. Personally I suspect that students have a better ability to appreciate historical context than their teachers give them credit for. But there are many good books that have been written over the centuries, and there’s no excuse for bowlderizing a classic to make your life a little more comfortable.

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