Education in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about education as it is portrayed in ''Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'' You'll also get to see different emphases that characters placed on formal education.

Basic Education and Importance

These days, basic education is often taken for granted. In the US, children have to go to school until they're 16, and many continue on beyond that, in community college or universities. Mark Twain's novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, took place in a very different time, in the 1840s, and education was not set up the way it is now. We see some of how it was set up through the eyes of the main character, Huckleberry, or Huck, Finn. Huck's mother died when he was young, and his father was completely uneducated and many in the novel referred to him as 'uncivilized.' As a result, Huck didn't go to school until a little later in life, when he was taken in by the Widow Douglas. She was an elderly woman in his town, and part of what Huck referred to as 'civilized folk.'

In Huck's world, not everyone goes to school, especially those in the lowest classes. Those that do go learn the basics. Huck talks about learning math, which he hates and deems useless, and learning to read and write. He never mentions learning art or history or any of the other now commonly-taught subjects, like Civics. While these basics are regarded as important to a degree, many characters in the novel cannot read or write. Others learn it at home, rather than by going to school for a formal education. We see this in particular during the feud between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords. The feud has taken precedence, and the son, Buck Grangerford, tells Huck that school has been canceled, but the children all know how to read and write. However, there is little mention in the novel of education other than basic schooling, and it's clear, to Huck and many he meets, that school is just not the most important thing, beyond basic reading and writing.

Just for some contrast, think about school as it is today. Everyone, up to 16 at least, learns multiple levels of math, history, literature, and science at the very least. Many also learn music, and physical education is almost always part of the curriculum. Huck learned only basic reading and writing, and very little math. Many other people may have learned even less. Clearly, the education system, and therefore the characters' views of education, were very different from our own.

Education and Perceived Status

Despite the general lack of emphasis on education itself, education is frequently used as a status marker in the novel, as far as perceived by Huck. When Huck's father finds him at the widow's house and sees that he can read and write, he gets angry. He accuses Huck of thinking that he's better than his father, and tells him that he's going to take him down a notch. Huck's father clearly believes, and says it outright several times, that educated people think they're better than everyone else. In this case, seeing someone, especially his son, with more education than him makes him feel inferior, and this makes him angry. In general, Huck's father is an angry and violent man, so his reaction matches that.

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