To Teach a Mockingbird? Let’s Discuss

A school district in Biloxi, Mississippi, recently made waves when it decided to pull Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading in its school.

The reason? The language made students “uncomfortable.”

Banning books has long been a problem in the United States and one that (justifiably) infuriates the general public. If we are a country founded on freedom and, therefore, free speech, censoring books in the public school system is one of the most defiant actions against the Bill of Rights. Yes, books may contain ideas or introduce lifestyles that make us uncomfortable, but it is the right and even the responsibility of each student to make their own assumptions and opinions. By banning books, we are simply taking away knowledge that enhances and expands student perspectives—the exact opposite of what education should be.

Teachers also play a large role when teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and discussing powerful topics. Controversial books generally deal with thematic content that can be difficult to teach appropriately. To Kill a Mockingbird has, for years, been a springboard for discussion on racism, a topic that can be difficult to bring up in classrooms. Unfortunately, there may be detrimental effects when a teacher overlooks certain aspects of the novel. For example, what are the full implications of Lee’s artistic choices when developing her characters of color? Take Calpurnia: when students view her through Scout’s eyes, what potential lessons could students internalize about the role of black women?

Banning books is not the answer, but perhaps the school district in Biloxi was onto something, just not for the right reasons—districts can select only a few number of works they choose to teach a year, and To Kill a Mockingbird has traditionally been on the syllabus for decades. Perhaps there should be room for more recent works that touch on the same topics in a different approach. Conversely, it has remained on the syllabus for extremely valid reasons, as it pushes students to expand their perspectives. All of this leads to a pivotal question: should we continue to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in high schools? Let’s explore both sides.

No, We Should Not Teach To Kill a Mockingbird:

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade, and it’s a novel I still hold dear to my heart because of the classroom discussions that left a lasting impact on me. I remember learning about lynchings and about the United States’s ugly past; I became more aware of the world I lived in and how the US treats black people and how history influences where we are today. These are huge, important lessons that I believe need to be taught in school. To Kill a Mockingbird was an effective way to do that.

However, I recently realized who this book is intended for: white people. My school was primarily white and in my English class, specifically, we had no black students. I didn’t even think about the implications of what being a black student and learning about race from a very white perspective would be like. As author Alice Randall points out, “the black child who has been verbally abused by being called a ‘nigger’ in the schoolyard could be more hurt hearing that word taught in the classroom…”

To Kill a Mockingbird is regularly taught to readers at a young-ish age. While eighth graders and high schoolers are typically able to possess the reading comprehension to understand it, they may not be in the position to fully understand it. It may be more appropriate for adults, with its thematic content and nuanced subject matter, but six-year-old Scout’s point of view misleads many to believe that it is targeted at a younger audience. To Kill a Mockingbird can be taught to be more than just teaching empathy or understanding that the “n-word is bad.” To Kill a Mockingbird can be used as a perfect example of what “white saviorism” is, of understanding that Atticus is just as flawed as the rest of us, and that there is so much more to racism than just individuals who hold racist beliefs—it’s an entire system. The issue here is that it’s not always taught through this lens.

Atticus Finch is often thought of as a beacon of morality, and his teachings on empathy have been used by children and parents alike. However, his character is more complicated than this. Written from Scout’s young perspective, it’s easy to see Atticus through her eyes, as a hero. If we look at him from a more critical lens, Atticus emerges as a white savior. In media, white saviorism is when the story focuses on a white character who acts to help a non-white character. Unfortunately, the non-white character is reduced to a prop while the white character is glorified. One could argue that Atticus shouldn’t be taught as a civil rights hero (as he so often is) since he only worked with the system, not against it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his article for The New Yorker, writes that “Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence…What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.”

Furthermore, To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on Atticus and his attempt to “save” Tom Robinson but provides no insight into Tom Robinson’s perspective. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird completely ignores the perspectives and viewpoints of any black characters. When Robinson is lynched, we do not have to deal with the devastating effects of the lynching (what happens to his family, etc.); instead, we get to safely lie in bed with Scout and have Atticus read to us as we happily end the novel. If we want to use literature to begin the discussion on racism in the US, perhaps we should turn towards works written by people of color, for people of color, about people of color. To Kill a Mockingbird does the opposite, focusing on Atticus and his relationship to Tom Robinson and his attempts to “save” him in an unjust society.

I could go on about how Atticus compares himself to a Klan member, how he does little to confront the overt racists in Maycomb, and how he fails to practice empathy himself. He’s a complex character who possesses numerous nuances that are often overlooked when teaching the novel. His faults can lead to important discourse—discourse that we need in our society right now because so many of us fall into the trap of the “accommodation” mindset rather than “reformation” one to the systemic injustices in our society. This requires highly qualified teachers and ones who understand the complexities of the novel and how to teach it appropriately, a tall order for all schools in the nation that end up teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a work of literary genius—do not get me wrong. But, what makes it such an everlasting piece of work are its often overlooked complexities when teaching it to our students. This can be harmful and especially problematic because there is so much more to the book than just a feel-good, coming-of-age novel. When it becomes misconstrued as just that, we lose sight of the more important ideas of the novel: race in the US—the very thing we use to defend To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place.

Yes, We Should Teach To Kill a Mockingbird:

We should teach To Kill a Mockingbird because students are neither too inexperienced nor too young to learn and understand deeper issues. It may require more effort to effectively teach this novel, but it undoubtedly pays off. Education is about pushing limits, making things uncomfortable, and forcing us to face the reality we live in. What good does it do to shield students away from things that could potentially make them uncomfortable?

To Kill a Mockingbird forces us to confront things we may not necessarily want to confront. Racism, whether subtle or overt, still exists and by banning it, or not teaching it, only causes a disservice to students. This book is unparalleled in its emotional effects; it’s often the first novel that students are introduced to them that really makes them feel, both enlightened but also inspired. Shouldn’t that count for something? And, sometimes those feelings also include discomfort which should not be a reason to toss it, but instead a reason to teach it. Leonard Pitts Jr., columnist, stated that “…some of those discomfited by Lee’s book are African American. It makes no difference. In literature, as in protest, the audience’s discomfort is often a sign the message is being received. It can offer an invaluable opportunity to consider, reconsider, debate, teach, learn, reflect, and grow.”

Lee’s timeless classic can be read at varying points in our lives, and while it may not be geared towards children, it should be introduced in schools at some point. That first introduction can be the beginning of larger discourse and hopefully an extended journey with understanding the book and all of its complexities. If perhaps the first time we read it and the concept of white saviorism or Atticus’s failure to practice empathy usually goes over our heads, we are still left with other important elements of the novel. As with many literary classics, we gain more from reading them after we’ve gained more life experience. It would be impossible to expect a teacher to cover every single lesson a book can provide. That’s why we have literature classes and why we teach books written hundreds of years ago—there’s always more to learn from a book and that should not be a reason to rule it out in the classroom.

Furthermore, To Kill a Mockingbird is thought-provoking and stimulating to many students—qualities that can get students excited to actually read it. We are immediately pulled in by Scout’s voice and the riveting plot of Tom Robinson’s trial. It explores issues of morality, identity, and growing up, which are themes all children face today. And, yes, it explores racism, which is certainly something children need to begin to understand and discuss.

To Kill a Mockingbird may have the potential to be problematic under certain circumstances, but ultimately it is a coming-of-age book that enlarges students’ perspectives while also providing hope, which is much needed in our society today.

What do you think? Should we continue to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in high schools? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!

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