Mark Twain on Diversity and Inclusion


You want to show a young man overcoming the ignorance of his own culture?

Make him an outcast to start with, the offspring of the town drunk, and send him on a long trip. There is nothing at home for him to return to, nothing to be conservative about. Put him on a raft with an older, wiser person of a different and maligned race, and even lower social status, a person of excellent character, a gentle man, courageously attempting to escape his bondage and rejoin the family from which he has been unjustly separated. And send them down the culture’s most emblematic river together.

That’s the operative word: together.  It was the shared adventures of Huck and Jim that educated Huck, shattering his deeply ingrained inherited assumptions about black folks in general and slaves in particular – so ingrained in fact that he actually thought he might go to hell for not turning Jim into the authorities.  It is hard to imagine a more confined space than that of a raft, a more intimate neighborhood.

And just in case his readers didn’t get the point, Mark Twain sends Tom Sawyer on a much less adventurous trip, with no such company as Huck had, to the place where he meets up with Jim and Huck. And there, Tom has so little understanding of the value of Jim as a fellow human that he uses him as a plaything in an imagined adventure.

And remember this: Tom has been going to school, while Huck has been playing hooky – and Jim is not even allowed to learn to read.

I took two high school students, both of them wonderful young people, on a much shorter, vastly less adventurous trip one day– from The Athenian School to watch a soccer game in Oakland, about a forty minute ride. They were of different gender and race and economic status, and neither had ever been in the other’s home. But they were friends. They genuinely liked each other. We were chatting, enjoying each other’s company, as we came to a certain neighborhood in Oakland, and one of the students exclaimed, “God, I’m glad I don’t have to live here!”

There was a fraught silence – until the other said, “I live here. And I like it here.” I was amazed at her equanimity, her lack of anger. Her forgiveness of his ignorance.  She understood her friend had had no education in these matters. He couldn’t know.

How long would it have taken, though, for that ignorance to begin to be eradicated, if those two kids had not shared the same school?

But a more provocative question is: Why didn’t we do what Mark Twain did? Why didn’t we engineer those kids’ experience so that they would truly know each other? Why did we miss the chance for them to understand the rich culture of the other’s neighborhood? Why weren’t they ever in each other’s homes? We engineered the rest of the curriculum. Why did we leave such a critical element of it to chance?


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Garrett

    A great post, and very poignant.

    But in terms of engineering the curriculum of the Athenian School: I rather think that experience you illustrate is EXACTLY the Athenian experience. I meant to say that Athenian does, or can do, exactly what you say Mark Twain set out to achieve. The Athenian Experience has the very seed of exactly what you describe in every aspect of its design.

    Or at least the Athenian I attended.

    I have come to appreciate The Athenian School’s design in so many ways as I have grown older. Specifically Athenian’s focus on the Athenian Experience as a transformative one; both academic and personal. There are, in my experience, very few schools like Athenian in the California, and indeed throughout the world.

    Most important to the design of the Athenian School, in my opinion, is that the student learns quickly that the effort they put into their own education and experience is directly related to the reward and growth they will receive.

    Also Athenian gently demands that the student abandon any preconcieved notion of the world around them, and listen to the voices of fellow students and faculty with actual world experience.

    I rather think that poignant moment you describe means nothing if the students weren’t able to learn and grow from it. Millions of people read “Huckleberry Finn” every year. Some, perhaps most, take away from it only the amusing anecdotes and clever words: Twain is a classic author; and yet, to our horror, racism and intolerance are just as pervasive in our society as it ever has been.

    One has to think and feel to digest Twain, as well as any other author.
    I had read almost every book by Twain before coming to Athenian: we had a complete set at home and it was fun for a bookish kid to immerse oneself in Twain’s words.

    I credit “innocents abroad” with the basis of my world view.
    Mark Twain gave me those words.
    Athenian gave me understanding.

    It is a fact that Athenian’s structure changes dramatically based on the students that attend it.
    Another unhappy fact is that accordingly the student’s parents and wishes play a smaller but often key part in the shaping of Athenian’s policies and operations.

    Athenian has transitioned from a school of primarily boarding students, who lived at Athenian most of the year with each other and resident faculty, to a population largely of day students who enjoy the Athenian experience but reside at home with their families; in some cases returning the very moment class ends.

    I know that the experience of day students at Athenian can be powerful, many of my friends were profoundly effected by the Athenian School, and that most parents have their hearts in the right places.

    Mark Twain’s raft, that intimate setting forcing Jim and Huck to live together and truly see each other, and forcing them to work together, is analogous to many experiences at Athenian: and is an obvious stand in for the boarding experience.

    Many would also point out The Athenian Wilderness Experience; a subject every Athenian will bring up in conversation: often focusing on the mundane; what we ate, where we went, the heaviness of our packs. Seldom do we in conversation focus on the profound. That we had to depend on each other: the stress of needing each other to achieve personal goals. The stripping away of preconceived notions of who you and your fellows were, as well as the rebuilding of a greater sense of family.

    Athenian’s curriculum itself to my mind represents the river. You can travel it in many ways: in a luxury cabin; choosing to integrate with others at meals and at your own pace, returning at night to your own safe environment, or on a raft – with fellow travelers, redefining your notion of what it means to be a student or a teacher, what it means to be poor or rich, what it means to be awake or dreaming.

    Some folks may get off in Missouri, some may ride it all the way to the delta. There is wonderment and beauty enough for both: but you have to have your eyes open.

  2. Stephen Davenport

    Hi Garrett,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I agree: The Athenian experience is transformative and yes the incident I described is in small the analogue to Huck’s and Jim’s. I do think we should think about how to design the curriculum and the community to take maximum advantage of the opportunity for each person in our diverse community to know each other person fully. Another way of saying we can always do more.
    Great to hear from you!

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