Claremont Censors Professor for Quoting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

The courageous and decent hero of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is the black slave Jim. To censor this work because of its vocabulary, spectacularly misses Mark Twain’s point. How many of those who censor Huckleberry Finn have actually read Huckleberry Finn?

(p. A15) Claremont, Calif.

I teach at Claremont McKenna College, the No. 1-ranked liberal-arts college for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. FIRE may need to consider its ratings.

On Oct. 4, 2021, my class discussed Plato’s “Republic” and his views about censorship. A student objected that Plato was mistaken about its necessity. Here in the U.S., she said, there is none. Someone brought up “Huckleberry Finn.” She replied, correctly, that removing a book from curriculums doesn’t constitute censorship. I pointed out that the case was more complicated. The book had also been removed from libraries and published in expurgated editions.

An international student asked me why. I told her, quoting Mark Twain’s precise language, which meant speaking the N-word.

. . .

. . ., the dean enlisted the help of both the department chairman and a co-director of the college’s Open Academy program—a resource center that describes its purpose as “to counter the forces that are pulling us apart with educational strategies that bring us together”—to ban me from teaching any required courses in the future, seemingly into perpetuity.

. . .

The administration’s behavior toward me and two similar cases in the literature department seem to show that CMC sets the bounds of faculty speech arbitrarily. This spring, a literature adjunct read aloud and asked students to discuss a passage from “The Color Purple” that contained the N-word. They complained. Ms. Antecol summoned the adjunct, who apologized and agreed to undergo recommended counseling. The professor submitted to re-education and training in critical race theory. Despite all this—and a glowing recommendation by the faculty member who observed her course—the class the adjunct was set to teach at CMC in the fall was abruptly canceled.

When a tenured literature professor, who is also well-connected to the board of trustees and the media, committed a similar offense, he received no penalty. Last fall the professor assigned Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead,” which contains the N-word. When he played in class a recording of Lowell reading the poem, a student exploded, excoriating both author and teacher as old white men. The associate vice president for diversity and inclusion informed the professor by telephone, not in writing, that he was in the clear because he hadn’t himself read the forbidden word aloud in class.

The effects of the administration’s actions are disastrous and lasting. Students, already fearful to speak their minds, become even more so when they see that certain peers can veto the content of courses and conduct of teachers arbitrarily.

. . .

My job as a teacher is to oppose ignorance wherever it manifests itself. If a dean promotes the work of Daniele da Volterra, Pope Paul IV’s painter of fig leaves, I have no choice but to stand for the original of Michelangelo. And so must I stand for the original works of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass, exactly as written by their authors. They deserve that, as do my students.

For the full commentary see:

Christopher Nadon. “Censorship at a Top College for Free Speech.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 22, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

A thrifty edition of Mark Twain’s humane masterpiece is:

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994 [1885].

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