To Kill a Mockingbird has its problems. An article last year about students who don't read the assigned texts was titled, "The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom". It's too hard for many students, and many students don't read it. I don't love the way it seems to solve the problem of racism by substituting classism, in which the elite White people of Maycomb are mainly good and enlightened, the country farmers are good at heart if not always fully enlightened, the obedient and/or crippled Black people are good, and the people who are bad include the powerful, uppity, separatist Black person (tall, strong Lula, who is a "troublemaker" with "fancy ideas and haughty ways") and the great villain of the novel, Bob Ewell, whose evilness is directly linked to his class status as poor white trash. I also don't love the way the book glorifies the she-asked-for-it rape defense.
It's not my favorite book, and I wish I wasn't required to teach it, especially to my "Standard" level ninth grade classes. Nevertheless, in the past couple of days I've found myself thinking a lot about what the book says about reading and school. Like many of our culture's most beloved books, To Kill a Mockingbird gives a picture of reading and of school (and of explicit instruction in particular) that is as interesting as any broadside in the great education debates.
First, To Kill a Mockingbird shows us a group of young people with a deep culture of reading. When Dill first introduces himself to Jem and Scout, he states his
identity in the following way: "I'm Charles Baker Harris. I can read." Jem, Scout and Dill are left to their own devices most of the time, and many of their activities relate to the books they read. They share adventure novels (Tarzan, Tom Swift and the like), they act out their plots, and when in the first chapter Dill wants to get Jem to run up and touch the spooky Radley house, he does it by offering to bet "The Gray Ghost against two Tom Swifts".
This culture of reading is independent of school. As in a lot of other books (the autobiographies of Ben Franklin, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Henry James, etc., and novels like Tom Sawyer and Ramona and Beezus), we see children whose reading is deep and sustaining in the absence of explicit instruction. What has happened is that these children have been inducted into the society of readers (what a wonderful passage in Crevecoeur calls an "extensive intellectual consanguinity"); once in that society, they have not needed much extra guidance.
How are they initiated? Not through explicit instruction. Mockingbird is bitterly satirical about school--mocking the idea that reading can be taught at all. As Scout tells it, when on the first day of school her teacher, Miss Caroline, "discovered I was literate, she looked at me with more than faint distaste. She told me to tell my father not to teach me anymore, it would interfere with my reading."
The joke here is many-layered. First, Miss Caroline sees "reading" as something that should be entirely within the purview of school. Second, she imagines that reading must be "taught." Third, her notion, that teaching will interfere with reading, is true, but not in the way Miss Caroline imagines. It isn't Atticus, but Miss Caroline herself whose teaching will interfere with Scout's reading.
For, as Scout sees it, Atticus has never "taught" her. He is too tired in the
evenings, she tells her teacher, to do anything but sit in the livingroom and read. But Miss Caroline can't believe it. "You tell your father not to teach you anymore. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and undo the damage." When Scout tries to protest, Miss Caroline cuts her off: "Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now."
So, either Miss Caroline does not know how to teach, or else "teaching" itself is suspect. The novel implies the latter, but it's not a simple picture. For in fact Miss Caroline is not just an old-fashioned teacher with a ruler. She is also a representative of a new way of teaching that Jem identifies as the "Dewey Decimal System." This too is a multi-layered joke. On the one hand, Jem is confusing John Dewey, the philosopher and education theorist, with Melvil Dewey, the inventor of a strict and systematic library classification system, and Miss Caroline's teaching seems somewhat strict and systematic.
On the other hand--and this is where the joke gets complicated, this is where the book raises a challenge to us as teachers--Miss Caroline is really, to some extent, a teacher in the progressive tradition of John Dewey, who believed that learning was largely social and that the teacher should be a member of the community rather than a purveyor of facts in the mold of Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind--and yet her attempts to guide and model rather than command and instruct are always falling short. Harper Lee has us laughing at Miss Caroline's reading of The Wind in The Willows, which no one in her class understands or cares about. She is trying to lead the kids to reading, but she's failing. Her failure is contrasted with Atticus's success: at the end of the section on school, Atticus reads to Jem and Scout about a flagpole sitter, the kids are rapt, and Jem heads out to the yard to try it himself.
Our challenge as teachers, like Miss Caroline's challenge, is to try to initiate our students into the culture of reading--to get them to join that extensive intellectual consanguinity. Why does Atticus succeed and Miss Caroline fail? How can we do what Atticus does? Can school even work that way?