To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Directed by Robert Mulligan Shown from left: Gregory Peck (as Atticus Finch), Brock Peters (as Tom Robinson)

February 13, 2018 Brad Johnson 0Comment

To Kill a Mockingbird should remain an educational requirement.

Books serve a transformational role in any society. Reading is one of the most basic and necessary functions for all individuals. So naturally, books rank of high importance in our educational system. Books (and by default, stories) offer something that little else in this world can claim: knowledge without the prefatory experience it usually accompanies. John Green, famed author and co-host of the podcast Dear Hank & John, has said “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.” Throughout my high school education, I read many books that were an absolute burden to make my way through. Topping this list was My Ántonia, the novel by Willa Cather about prairie life in Nebraska in the late 19th century. Yet even this snoozefest contained some valuable messages — chief among them was that life in the American West was rough and unforgiving, rather than the popular dramatized version we see in movies today.

Literary works enhance an individual’s education, and by extension their understanding, at an unquantifiable measure. Not to mention they teach or improve arguably the most important skill in the world today, the ability to read. Many slaveholders during the Colonial Period, and all the way up through the Civil War (and was continued in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South), did everything in their power to prevent their slaves from learning to read. Frederick Douglass once wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” What’s as true now as it was back then, is that it is far easier to enslave or manipulate an ignorant person, than a learned one. Reading is the path to nearly all knowledge. Which is why it is so disconcerting to see that another school system has removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its required curriculum. Being the classic that it is, and if we are to require certain books in the curriculum, Harper Lee’s most famous work should be among the assembly.

Most students read To Kill a Mockingbird sometime within their high school years. But many students at Duluth schools in Minnesota will not experience this. Following the lead of various other school districts throughout the country, the Duluth School District decided to remove Lee’s novel, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the required reading list. Administrators say it will still be an optional reading choice (But how many kids would go out of their way to read this? Hint: not many.)

Their reasoning, mirroring those before them, cited the usage of the n-word. Michael Cary, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, stated “The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable.” No doubt, the use of that word should strike discomfort into the hearts of all who read it. But is that not the point of coming to terms with errant ways of the past? The past should be learned from, lest we repeat its mistakes. Yes, students of Duluth, Minnesota will be spared the discomfort their administrators hope to avoid, but the far more important aspects are the lessons to be learned from a book that withstood multiple decades of schooling.

“Students of Duluth Schools will miss out on that lesson Robinson and Finch champion.”

Tom Robinson’s (the black man accused of rape in the story) fate was essentially sealed the moment his accuser opened her mouth. That was reality in the Jim Crow South, and it is an important history to understand. But despite the cards stacked against him, a man of integrity in a town that clearly lacked its moral embrace, put his reputation at stake to try and save an innocent man’s life. Atticus Finch embodies justice and morality, and despite his fictional nature, can serve as a benchmark for which to reach. Finch says to his daughter Scout, “If there’s one place a man ought to get a square deal, it’s in a courtroom.” Surely, there is no doubt that in the place that can rob an individual of their freedom, a fair trial is an obligation.

Finch, when no other person would, did all he could to level the scales for Tom. Ultimately, he failed, and Tom perished as a result. But not before proving himself admirable as well. Tom, despite the nearly forgone conclusion, stood athwart his accusers with dignity and resolve. Atticus and Tom were a team. Many view lawyers in situations similar to Atticus’ today as lone rangers of sorts — championing right in the face of wrong no matter the cost. But without Tom’s best efforts throughout the trial, Atticus would not have been able to accomplish what he did (in forcing a jury to deliberate for hours instead of minutes). Both embodied courage, in its highest form.

Speaking to his son Jem, Atticus states “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Standing up for what is right, in the face of overwhelming opposition, is the mark of true courage. Just as John Parker’s gang of ragtag militiamen exhibited on a field in Lexington, Massachusetts, seen in the actions of freemen such as Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, and illustrated in the examples set by the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the courage to stand up for morality in the face of evil is the key to extinguishing its pervasive influence. Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson represent the countless individuals who go largely unrecognized by history because they did not prevail. But their failure does not discredit the courage exhibited in their actions.

And therein lies the rub. Students of Duluth Schools will miss out on that lesson Robinson and Finch champion. Famed (fictional) gunslinger John Wayne said about courage, “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.” Thanks to their administrators, Duluth students will be neglected this lesson. If our education system is to benefit its constituents, curriculum must challenge and discomfort students. That is the path to knowledge, not ignorant bliss.

Throughout the novel, various characters are shown to be innocent victims of ignorance, also known as “Mockingbirds.” Ironically, and despite their good intentions, Duluth’s administration makes a “mockingbird” of the novel itself, and by extension their students who will now never read it.

Follow this author on Twitter: @bradjCincy

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