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EDITORIAL: Books should build empathy

How schools handle books with racially sensitive topics is a tricky call. But its one they have to face from time to time.

A school in the state of Mississippi made the news this past week, reinstating the classic To Kill a Mockingbird to the junior high reading list, having pulled it earlier this month over complaints that some of the books language makes people uncomfortable.

Considering that books setting in the southern U.S., and a theme focusing on racial tensions, this book and its content would be a subject close to home for such a school. Add to that, author Harper Lee was from not far away – Monroeville, Alabama.

On the one hand, its understandable how some of the language in a novel looking at race could upset some students, particularly when we might expect in this part of the country to see a mix of black and white students.

In reversing the decision – due to pleas from literary groups and even students elsewhere in the country not to remove the book – the school used some flexibility. Students who want to study the novel in the Grade 8 class need a permission slip signed by parents. Students can also opt out and choose a different assignment.

Thats the thing, we always must take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater when making such decisions. To Kill a Mockingbird certainly portrays some ugly racial incidents in its 1930s Alabama setting but, as readers know, paints a picture overall of the need for compassion and respect for others who are different, whether by race or otherwise.

The dilemma crops up from time to time in schools about whether to include some of these classics. Mark Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another example, the story set when slavery was still a reality and portraying language and attitudes society finds offensive now. Other compelling books are occasionally singled out for various reasons – racial issues, language or sexual references.

And considering changes as North American communities see evermore diversity in their populations, we can expect this to be a continuing challenge.

Censorship in any form should never be the go-to response. But delicate handling of literature to be taught is required.

The Mississippi school saw this. And there are champions of great literature eager to help. The Mark Train House sent an offer of help to teach racially controversial material.

The Mark Twain House, in a letter to the school, stated in part: “Great literature makes us uncomfortable. It changes how we think, forcing us to analyze our established points of view. Guiding students through that process is, as you know, a key element of middle-school literary studies…. These books should build empathy, and not be used to single out classmates.”

Another factor to keep in mind, as societies continue to strive toward improved race relations: these books fill in parts of the roadmap detailing the history of the struggle. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960; Huckleberry Finn in 1884. They stand as two landmark novels that grapple with the heartrending issue of unhealthy race relations – an issue we have yet to conquer.

Serious, intelligent discussion about these problems is part of the exercise in getting beyond them.

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