Thoughts on Education from To Kill a Mockingbird

Dear Reader,

One test of a good book is whether you can read it multiple times and get different things out of it. I am rereading To Kill a Mockingbird which I hadn’t looked at since I was in school. My perception going in was the stereotype — “this book is about race.” I’m finding now that it is very little about race (at least half way in). But I am loving what it says about education.

The story is apparently set in the early days of John Dewey’s educational philosophy. The two main kid characters, Jem and Scout, are a bit confused and call it “the Dewey Decimal System.” Scout’s pretty young teacher Miss Caroline is an afficiando of this new, revolutionary way of teaching kids. This method involves a lot of flashcards but few books (though Miss Caroline does start the day by reading the first graders a storybook none of them like). It is also a professional way of teaching, meaning it should be left to professionals. Scout is reprimanded for having learned to read from her father who though he never went to school is a lawyer.

In the words of Scout —

“The remainder of my school days were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts  to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything – at least, what one didn’t know the other did . . . I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, pp. 32-33)

There is a great argument for homeschooling here, but the value of being at home is also in how we can teach. Let’s not just recreate what the schools do. I love the talk of Projects and Units. And I am so glad I have left these things behind. I also love the detail that between the two brothers they knew everything. It was not that one child necessarily got everything. They each got what they needed out of their education.

Nebby

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One response to this post.

  1. I was one of those who actually made it through high school, college and 25 years of life beyond before I read (just recently) To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved it, and partly because it is about so much more than what the reductionist consensus says it’s about. I noticed these passages too! Glad you reminded me of them.

    Reply

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