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Huck, Jim and our interest in education

Posted by Jim Stergios  September 17, 2012 12:45 PM

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Twain famously noted that

the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.

Getting words right is arguably the key task in educating an individual, for precise use of language is critical to developing the ability to observe and to think.

Then there is the sinister twisting of language for reasons of power (most often political power). This was a topic of intense focus by George Orwell, who in his staple of 9th grade reading courses, Animal Farm, described how the vision of Old Major was transformed to the darker purpose of other animals after his death. In the novella, the animals rebel against the drunken farmer Mr. Jones for mistreatment, with Old Major noting that “all animals are equal.” By the end, Napoleon has moved aside other competitors for power and trampled on Old Major’s original ideals. He has set himself up (and apart) in comfort with the final formulation of his new ideal: “some animals are more equal than others.”

Orwell developed an interest in and ability to perceive political uses and abuses of language through a life “suffering” from wanderlust, traveling and living in Burma, Paris and London, chronicling working class life throughout England (most famously in The Road to Wigan Pier), and staying in Spain during its civil war.

Teacher contract negotiations are not a civil war, nor should they work from allegories on the history of socialism. They do seem like either or both at times, as we have watched the Chicago teachers strike with wildly stated facts on both sides of the argument and, closer to home, the Boston Teachers Union’s two-year dance with the Boston Public Schools Administration, which concluded in a settlement last week.

In a real (though legalistic) way, the teachers union in Boston and the City were hard at work for 800 or so days, trying to find the right words to express what they wanted to achieve together. A teacher contract is not all about where the district and the teachers want to take the system. But at its most basic level, it tries to answer this question: What is the best way for adults to work together to improve student performance the fastest?

Or even better, this question: How can the teachers and the city’s school management system work most effectively together to provide an excellent education? We sometimes forget that that is the outcome we want—and we feel like we are asking for the impossible because we are so far from it in reality. But it is the right question, using the right words.

But whatever path you take to improve schools, the recently settled contract negotiations in Boston and the continuing strike in Chicago have millions of Americans reading lots and lots of words about the teachers unions, urban schools, and the need for radical improvement.

In both circumstances, we should be struck by how 95 percent of education policy discussions are actually totally devoid of any mention of the academic substance that is the real, central work of schooling.

There, I’ve said it.

With the mediocre performance of American schoolchildren overall and the shockingly low performance of schoolchildren living in U.S. cities, as compared to our international competitors, this kind of ongoing political theatre (mostly among public officials who often fund each others’ campaigns and each others’ initiatives) and the ensuing horse trading found in contract negations, says everything about what ails public education in our nation.

That is, when the adults carry on like children the general public and students alike witness it and hear the empty language these supposed “educational leaders” use.
Consequently, everyone gets the correct impression that academic content doesn’t matter much in K-12 education, while people also realize that the adults who run our edu-systems are far more concerned about the adults’ interests, edu-processes, and dead education language (not ancient Greek or Latin) than about actual academic content, ideas, and the life of the mind among their students.

So that we can start hearing more words around K-12 schooling that are “lighting” and not merely “lighting-bugs,” Pioneer has a great event featuring real scholars in academic content areas.

In this case, the event is on Mark Twain. Twain was a wanderer, like Orwell, and developed a keen ear for how people spoke—and what would be the right word. His ability to shape our way of reading, writing and speaking in a distinctly American voice was the product of innate talent, but also of his continuous chronicling of his times and his almost Zelig-like knack for finding himself in exactly the right place at the right time in history.

His masterwork Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and classic literature more generally are vitally important in K-12 English standards. This is a particularly important discussion now that 46 states have adopted weaker quality national standards that emphasize so-called “informational texts” and cut classic literature in formerly high standards states like Massachusetts, California, and Indiana by more than 50 percent.

Here are the all-star speakers—Jocelyn Chadwick and Ron Powers:

Jocelyn Chadwick has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher, scholar, and author … is a nationally recognized Mark Twain scholar…she is the author of The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, and is currently writing another book on Twain.

Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy Award-winning writer and critic, has studied and written about Mark Twain for many years. He is the author of 12 books, including Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain and Mark Twain: A Life.

Here’s an outstanding essay that Chadwick wrote on Huck Finn and race and Ron Powers on CSPAN.

This is the kind of scholarship and expertise, academic content, and substantive world of ideas that our teachers and schoolchildren need to be exposed to and engaged with. It is only through great books and ideas that our schools will truly be the transmitters of academic rigor that is worthy of our teachers’ and kids’ precious time.

Mark Twain’s greatest achievement was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to PBS, Huck Finn, along with Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, ranks among the greatest American novels.

Sadly, the new national K-12 education standards that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia don’t even mention either Huck Finn or Moby-Dick. And what we know from standards and curriculum is that what’s not cited in standards doesn’t get included in the tests and if it’s not tested – it doesn’t get taught.

Mark Twain wrote the way everyday Americans spoke. His Huck Finn is a tale about a half educated, backwoods kid and Jim, black slave fleeing captivity and their journey together down the Mississippi. Twain used common words to highlight Jim’s humanity and heroism to help Huck unlearn his own racism, but to illustrate the moral and societal failure of slavery and racial discrimination.

Maybe if Twain could use common language and plain words to help move Huck and Americans closer towards enlightenment on race issues, then maybe, just maybe, classic literature can help America’s educationists find enlightenment and stop putting edu-process before academic content and interests of our schoolchildren.

Just once, wouldn’t it be fun to force union and district officials to sit down at the table, to set aside contract negotiations, the Step tables, and the talking points, and to discuss in earnest Huck Finn? I’m not fool enough to think it would lead to dramatic change; but I sure would enjoy seeing people who are arguably interested in education talk about the purpose of education.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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