Children as Teachers: the possibility of a new social order?

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 Fifth Web Report

On Serendip


Children as Teachers: the possibility of a new social order?

Erin Bagus

In my examination of Uncle Tom's Cabin I concluded that our hope for social change in the future lay in teaching our children to live differently, to have a different morality and social order. After reading Adventures of Huck Finn, however, it occurs to me that perhaps a better future rests not in our teaching our children anything, but in allowing them to teach us or better still, in a reciprocal interaction. In Twain's classic, we are presented with two very different boys - Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer - who may be seen to represent two aspects of childhood. In their interaction, we find the possibilities and limits of letting our children devise a new social order.

Huck abandoned and adopted repeatedly has never had anyone to really teach him the morality and social order of his community; what he has learned, he has discovered mostly on his own. Lacking anyone to explain to him the reasoning behind what he experiences or hears, he makes up his own story or, when he can't do that, dismisses it or pretends he never encountered it. When one of his temporary guardians, Miss Watson, tries to explain an aspect of society, namely religion, she speaks to him in a metaphorical language he cannot understand. Thus, Huck still ends up making his own story in the end, which is more literal and makes sense to him. For example, Huck narrates, "Miss Watson...told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn't no good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work" (23). When he finally asks her why it isn't working for him, she tells him he's a "fool" because he didn't understood that she meant he might receive "spiritual gifts" not material things. The thought, however, still remains unclear for Huck. He says, "I couldn't make it out no way" (23).

Tom, on the other hand, has a family who has socialized him and answered all the why-questions that Huck is left to answer by himself. In Huck Finn, we don't really meet Tom's nuclear family, but we do spend the final section of the book with his extended family, who function in the same way as parents might, while allowing the boys' trick to work since as far away relatives they don't know what they should look like. Tom's family has taught him how he is supposed to interact with certain people and how he is supposed to feel about certain issues, therefore, he always seems to know more than Huck, that is, to be better informed. Even in the end, we discover that Tom has known all along that Jim was already free a small bit of information that makes all the difference between playing games with and helping to save a man's life.

The task of setting Jim free in the final section of the book brings the contrast between Huck and Tom into clarity. Tom views the project as a game, which serves only to entertain him. At one point he declares that "it was the best fun he ever had in his life, and the most intellectural; ...if he only could see his way to it we would keep it up all the rest of our lives and leave Jim to our children to get out" (256). He has lost sight of Jim's humanity in the process of amusing himself, to the point that Jim has become even worse than the property he was as a slave nothing more than a plaything, a great toy that Tom hopes to leave to his own children. Were we to put Tom in charge of designing a new social order, perhaps we would have no more slavery in the old sense, but would the new form of it be even more terrible? I think, however, that it is important to consider the fact that Tom had in fact been greatly socialized when he came up with this free-Jim game. He is not really coming up with something new because he still sees Jim as a slave, not really human in the same way that he himself is. Tom is simply being a little boy and playing make-believe with his slave to set him free, but one could easily imagine an adult who shows as much lack of regard for another human as Tom demonstrates, owning and roughly treating slaves. In this way, I don't see him as really illustrating the creative novelty with which a child's mind might formulate a new social order. He's too far gone, too educated. Huck, on the other hand, offers some real possibilities.

We, the readers, often find Huck considering the societal morality or opinion, which he has been half-taught, and in the end deciding that, for lack of a clearer solution, he is going to rely on himself and what feels right to him or comes easiest. When considering whether or not to give Jim up, he thinks to himself:

s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better that what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use of learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? ...So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time. (113)

Huck cannot reason through why he should give up Jim because he doesn't understand society's rationality of slavery. In his own solitary experiences with Jim, outside society, Tom doesn't even seem to notice his race, and even appears to see Jim as a father figure or caretaker.

Later, during another internal struggle Huck is feeling between what he knows he's supposed to do with Jim, that is turn him in, and what he feels is right. He says, "I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind...he would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me" (223). Huck's interaction with Jim and his ability to see him as a real person as well as his desire to save Jim not just for amusement's sake, but for the fact that he is human and deserves freedom, make me believe that a child like Huck could teach us adults a new way of seeing the world. He is courageous enough to let go of the morality - "moral or no moral; and as for me, I don't care shucks for the morality of it" (254) and just do what he thinks right, no matter the consequences. He even accepts the possibility that he might be wrong, declaring, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (223).

One issue, however, that we must deal with is the fact that Huck goes along with Tom throughout the whole ordeal of "creating difficulties" to make Jim's escape more like those Tom's read about in books. If Huck is the aspect of childhood, which might provide us with something new, he is also that part of us that doesn't dare act out, that goes along with the group even when we think it wrong or unjust. He tells Tom, "All right I don't care where he comes out, so he comes out; and Jim don't either, I reckon" (251). Huck gives in to the ridiculous antics that Tom wants Jim to perform instead of standing up for and protecting him. I have been trying to figure out why he does that because he seems like such a creative, resourceful child; I would be more likely to guess that he might stand up for himself and what he thinks.

It occurs to me though, that Tom and Huck are each trying to place themselves in the other's situation. That is, that Tom is trying to be wild and free without the restraints of society or family, like Huck while Huck wants to be more logical and restrained to fit into the society and family world of which he is not naturally a part. At the end of the book, Huck says, "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it" (296). I would argue that it is not that Huck doesn't want to be "civilized" and become part of a family group, but rather that he doesn't know how and, unable to figure it out, he chooses to remain in the world he knows the wilds, nature. Huck seems to envy his friend because he has been taught how to play his part in the group, because he knows the rules and how he is supposed to act.

Where does that leave us then in terms of whether or not our children can teach us how to live differently? It seems to me that Huck and Tom show us the possibility for creative thought that children have. Based solely on their own experiences of it, they see the world very differently than adults do. Sometimes, however, without instruction otherwise they can be too self-absorbed and disregard the well being of others like Tom does when designing his game to "free Jim." Everyone for himself certainly will not work as a societal order because it would result in total chaos. Also, with Huck, we see that children seem to crave some direction about how they are supposed to fit into the world. If it might be possible to somehow allow more of a reciprocal relationship between the children's creative imagination and the adult's mature, experienced guidance, maybe we could arrive at a middle path. Can we somehow learn to let our children teach us, while we also help them to shape and grow their new ideas?


| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:36 CDT