Michael J. Radwin

Tales of a software engineer who keeps kosher and hates the web.



Monday, October 16, 1995
Section: Editorial
Page: 7B

By: Joanne Jacobs column

HALLOWEEN and ”Huckleberry Finn” have a lot in common. They’re fun. They’re subversive of authority. They’re controversial.

Local public schools are coping with two controversies this October that pose a common question: What should happen when the beliefs of a minority conflict with the desires of the majority?

In Los Altos, the school board has banned Halloween celebrations during school hours, responding to a small number of Christian fundamentalists who complained that school celebrations of Halloween infringe on their religious beliefs.

Where others see humorous devils and witches, these parents see satanism and the occult. Where others see harmless fun, they see evil. They want to protect their children from what they see as dangerous and malign influences. Pretty hard when the month of October is devoted to spooky stories and songs, culminating with the school costume parade.

Of course, the vast majority of parents believe Halloween has nothing to do with religion, whether their kids read about the travails of the smallest witch or of the smallest pumpkin. They’d just as soon send a child to school as a ghoul, goblin or ghost (assuming there’s a plain white sheet left in the house) as a Power Ranger.

Holding the costume parade after school instead of at lunch time isn’t a huge burden. But why should a bunch of candy-munching kids dressed as cyborgs and ballerinas be treated like devil-worshippers?

Furthermore, holding the party after school isn’t nearly enough to protect the sensibilities of those who take devils and witches seriously. All through October, teachers plan stories, songs and art projects – sometimes math projects – to capitalize on children’s enthusiasm for Halloween. Half the lessons plans would have to be thrown out, if the top priority is to avoid offense.

Libraries would have to be purged, too. Alvin Schwartz’s ”Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark,” and two ”Scary” sequels make the top 10 list of books most frequently challenged in schools, according to People for the American Way. Critics charge that these books endanger children by trivializing the occult. They want them out of the schools.

But if the feelings of those who abhor witches must be considered, what about the feelings of witches? Some public school families are believers in Wicca and other witchcraft religions. Are schools to offer only positive images of witches for Halloween? No warts allowed, lest they offend?

In a very diverse society, it is impossible to protect the sensibilities of every student. Most of the time, majority rules is the only rule that makes sense.

That also applies to ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which the African American Parent Coalition wants removed from the required reading list at East Side high schools.

Race, not Satan, is the issue. The parents believe black children’s self-esteem is damaged by reading a book in which the ”n-word” is used in reference to a slave, who’s seen through the eyes of the white boy who helps him escape.

Like Schwartz’s scary stories, ”Huckleberry Finn” also is on the top 10 list of books people want to take out of the schools. Last year, it was an issue in Santa Cruz. The board decided it was OK if taught in historical context – which is the way all books should be taught.

Students don’t find it all that hard to understand what Mark Twain was getting at when he put Jim and Huck on that raft. No East Side students, of any race, came forward to complain that their self-esteem was damaged, and several defended the book, which is, of course, an indictment of slavery.

Should schools turn Halloween into Harvest Day to satisfy a small minority? Should teachers reject classic literature to avoid offending a handful of parents?

The answer has to be: No. Even if some kids are exposed to things their parents don’t like. Even if some kids are distressed by what they read.

Public schools have tried too hard to be all things to all people, to banish anything from the classroom that might offend or upset. It doesn’t work. Schools reflect and promote an essentially secular common culture – one that has concluded that Halloween is just for fun and that ”Huckleberry Finn” is a classic of American literature that everybody ought to read.

This material is copyrighted and may not be republished without permission of the San Jose Mercury News. For reprint rights, contact San Jose Mercury News Reprint Manager.

The San Jose Mercury News archives are stored on a SAVE ™ newspaper library system from Vu/Text Library Services, a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.