Why teach To Kill a Mockingbird

Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

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With the debate raging over the value and impact of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is critical that teachers ask, “Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?”  This post will examine both sides of the controversy in order to help you reach the decision that is best for you and your students.

My mentor teacher told me that you can feel confident defending your teaching when you have a firm rationale for every element in your practice.  It may be less important that you reach the “right” decision than it is that you are able to explain your reasons.  If parents, colleagues, and students understand your reasons, they can appreciate that you are acting with care and consideration.

Deciding if To Kill a Mockingbird harms students
Photo by the U.S. Department of Education

“Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?” post summary

  • The controversy 
  • Objections and justifications
    • The N-word and hateful stereotypes
    • Accusations of sexual assault
    • Atticus’ failed lessons on prejudice
  • Literary concerns
    • Merits of To Kill a Mockingbird
    • Faults of To Kill a Mockingbird

The controversy

The Duluth, Minnesota and Biloxi, Mississippi school districts are two of the most recent school systems to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum.  Some school systems (including Biloxi) are only allowing teachers to use the novel after attaining written approval from parents.  According to officials, the main problem is the emotional distress that the novel may cause students.  While these actions fall far short from banning, they certainly threaten to move the novel from the American canon and into relative obscurity.

Literature teachers are often a contrarian bunch, and many will see these decisions as a personal challenge.   To them the fact that people feel so strongly about the novel means that it must be explored in the classroom.  After all, how does avoiding controversial literature foster critical thinking?

On the other hand, many teachers who have the choice may avoid teaching To Kill a Mockingbird just to keep things simple.  Teaching is hard enough without creating additional challenges. The parental approval requirement sounds like a hassle and would serve to deter many teachers.  If a problem or concern does arise during the unit, a teacher might end up in an awkward predicament.

the controversy of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?: objections and justifications

The N-word and racist views

More and more school districts are dropping To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum due to the presence of the N-word and the racist views expressed by the townspeople of Maycomb. Some argue that studying any book containing the N-word causes African American students emotional harm and/or unwittingly encourages the use of the word.  The possibility that the presence of the word in a formal learning context could create emotional harm must be taken seriously.

Others who are concerned about the portrayals of novel look deeper and see Lee’s plot and point of view as racist, arguing that Atticus plays the role of “the great white father” who must defend hapless African Americans.  In the book, it is selected white people of Maycomb rather than the African Americans who are the agents of change.  African Americans in “real Maycombs” organized, resisted, and moved forward without depending on a white champion.

Arguments that To Kill a Mockingbird is racist

Justifications

Defenders of To Kill a Mockingbird argue that the inclusion of the N-word is neither gratuitous nor careless. Its use plays an important role in making students realize how naturally the children of Maycomb internalize the racist traditions. In addition, Atticus directly argues against its use.

The portrayals of the townspeople and their use of the N-word are distressing, but that doesn’t mean that the portrayals are inaccurate.  We do not want any students to feel distressed, but we cannot ignore uncomfortable realities either. Teachers who take care regarding the emotional well-being of the students can guide students through these loathsome realities without causing the students distress.

It is the role of great literature not to hide terrible truths but to illuminate them. With your care and sensitivity, students can navigate these upsetting issues.

Students should be challenged to determine for themselves whether or not Lee’s portrayals are erroneous or even harmful.  Even with the best intentions, is it possible that Lee accidentally created a narrative based on her own deep-seated biases or misinterpretations?

Students mastering symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird
Picture from the U.S. Department of Education

Helping students deal with the racism in To Kill a Mockingbird

Address these issues head-on.  Be proactive to ensure that everyone feels comfortable.

Before starting the unit, explain that the book portrays uncomfortable realities of racism in America. Encourage all students to come forward publicly or privately if anything is making them uncomfortable or stressed. 

Tell students how you want them to handle the presence of the N-word. I tell students that I prefer that we read the word and not hear it. When I read aloud, I say “N-word,” and I ask students to do the same. They may feel like I am being too sensitive, but I tell them that I am sensitive, and I appreciate their understanding.

Dealing with the n-word in teaching To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by Faith Coates

Point out that some find racism in the writing of this supposedly anti-racist novel. Encourage students think about this as they read. What objections might a critical reader have? Do not tell the students that the book is a flawless masterpiece.  It is an important book that has had a powerful legacy, but they should apply their own views and critical thinking skills in determining its merits and faults.

To Kill a Mockingbird unit banner

Accusations of sexual assault

Especially in light of the Me Too Movement, many find the false accusations of Mayella Ewell to be problematic in the classroom. A teacher recently told me that she would no longer be teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for this reason. She didn’t want to inadvertently support the denials of the accused. We don’t want students thinking that anyone making accusations of sexual assault or harassment is likely to be acting on a hidden agenda (like Mayella Ewell in the novel). 

Mayella’s false accusations are troubling, but this issue can be addressed responsibly:

  • Remind the students that exceptional examples (in fiction or real life) do nothing to disprove other accusations of sexual misconduct.
  • Point out that Mayella is partly telling the truth.  Lee implies that she has been sexually assaulted (by her father); the lie is in whom she accuses.  
  • Mayella is exceptional in terms of Lee’s portrayal of women. Scout, Calpurnia, Maudie Atkinson, and others are strong, intelligent, honest, and conscientious. The reader cannot help but think that these women would have made excellent jurors.
  • Discuss with students the fact that real-life victims who come forward to expose these crimes suffer additional trauma in doing so, and our attitudes should never be dismissive.  Many victims are prevented from speaking out from fear of the repercussions.

Are Mayella’s accusation against Tom false? Of course. Is Lee suggesting that accusations of sexual assault are generally false? No

Explain that the book contains a character making accusations of rape against an innocent man, but that this is in no way meant to support a dismissive attitude toward accusations of sexual assault or harassment. The fact that this character makes false accusations in this novel is no reason to assume doubt in real-life cases. 

Atticus’ failed lessons

Problems with Atticus' lessons

Atticus is meant to serve as the moral beacon for Maycomb (and the reader), yet his lessons demonstrate an astounding ignorance.  He completely fails to recognize the implications and power of the N-word and the terrible, looming, and continual threats faced by African Americans.

Quotes from Atticus:

“Don’t say ni**er, Scout. That’s common.” (99)

“…ni**er-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything – like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain – ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves.” (144)

“Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anybody to scare.  They paraded by Mr. Sam Levys’ house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass, he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs.  Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away….The Ku Klux’s gone…It’ll never come back.” (196)

Atticus gives a pathetic lesson the problems with the N-word.  Further, he is oblivious to the persistent and very real threat that mobs and organizations pose to African Americans or the psychological toll taken by such threats.  His assertion that hate groups are a thing of the past is unfounded.

The KKK and lynch mobs may seem like easily dismissed silliness by Atticus, but it is impossible to imagine the African Americans (even the stout-hearted Sam Levy) sharing his view.  Atticus is out-of-touch in this regard.

Atticus dismisses hate groups in To Kill a Mockingbird

Either Atticus truly does not get it, or he is circumnavigating issues for Scout’s benefit.  Either way, there are serious problems with his explanations.

These examples can be used to demonstrate that Atticus is not the paragon of parenting and morality that many believe.  His lack of insight on what it is like to be African American in Maycomb corresponds to his lack of insight regarding the role of women in the justice system.

Are Atticus’ failures by Lee’s design or do they signify her own limited perspective?  Does she want Atticus to seem oblivious or are her own views lacking insight?

Do not gloss over these issues. These topics, along with the fact that all of the events of the novel are explored from the perspective of white people, deserve consideration.

Addressing sensitive content in TKM
Photo by San Jose Public Library

Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?: literary value

Literary merits of To Kill a Mockingbird

While navigating difficult issues is a challenge, for many teachers, To Kill a Mockingbird is worth the effort. To Kill a Mockingbird helps students imagine everyday norms in a segregated town.  Students may know the terrible facts of lynching and the injustices of Jim Crow laws, but do they grasp the insidious daily indignities and hypocrisies?  At first, the ways of Maycomb seem benign to Jem, Scout, and Dill.  Lee artfully traces the connection between daily discrimination and horrific injustice.

Lee’s brilliance in crafting To Kill a Mockingbird is undeniable.  Lee develops the symbols relating to innocence powerfully and beautifully.  The novel’s two-part structure and parallel plots have a cumulative effect in developing the recursive themes.  Readers follow the evolution of Scout’s point of view as she comes to see Maycomb in a very different light.

When it comes to analyzing literary elements, To Kill a Mockingbird is a joy to teach.

Related post: Teaching Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird

Related post: How to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird

The literary merits of To Kill a Mockingbird

Literary criticism of the novel

Ethical and societal issues aside, is To Kill a Mockingbird deserving of its place as a masterpiece of the American literary canon?

There are several critiques offered by the novel’s detractors: 

  • The characters (especially Atticus) are one-dimensional.  (Atticus’ perfection as a father is not realistic.)
  • The theme is too simplistic.
  • The symbols are heavy-handed and lack nuance. (Do we really need the birds, turtles, dogs, and bugs to make the point?)
  • The point of view is unbelievable. (Can the reader accept Scout’s perceptiveness, intelligence, and sensitivity?)
  • The attempted murder of the children is contrived. (It seems unlikely that Ewell would attempt the murder of the children for any reason besides aiding the novel thematically.)
  • The intended audience is ambiguous.  (The themes lack nuance, yet the issues and references require maturity. Did Lee miss the mark in writing for young adults?)

Should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird?: conclusion

Making a judgement

Many of the objections discussed are valid, especially when it comes to the well-being of the students.  Poor writing is one thing, but causing emotional harm is quite another. No teacher wants to cause their students to feel undue distress.

After consider the ethical concerns and the literary concerns, you must decide if teaching the novel is appropriate. If you decide to include the novel, it is critical that you have a firm rationale for teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and clear justification of your methods.

I decided that I should To Kill a Mockingbird, but I keep the ethical and literary objections in the front of my mind.  I want the students to recognize what the author intended but also consider the effects that are unintended.  It is not my job to argue the book’s perfection.  Once students have mastered the book’s text, I want them to critically examine the subtext and reach their own conclusions on the novel’s value.

If you have decided to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, check out my unit and teacher guide.

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