To Kill a Mockingbird is the the most popular novel taught in high schools in North America. In my high school it has been taught since the 1970’s, but around 12 years ago, we had to make the decision to either invest in new copies of the book or to try something else. We decided to drop it because we had had a few students refuse to read the novel because of the “n” word and because we weren’t sure that it was the right novel for grade 9, which is where it is most commonly taught. Twelve years later we decided to reintroduce it on a trial basis in grade 10 because we were about the only school in the board that was not teaching it. Having taught it now, off and on, for over 30 years to different generations of students, here are my thoughts:
5 reasons to teach it
1. It is about discrimination, racism, cruelty and growing up-all topics that teenagers connect with.
2. It is well-written and has a pleasing, somewhat circular plot. I suspect Harper Lee had read a fair amount of Dickens and Alexandre Dumas.
3. The characters are archetypal. We love the wise father, the pitiable monster, the villain etc.
4. The narrator, Scout, is a delight. She has an ironic view of life but at the same time, is innocent. She is also a strong female role model.
5. Written at the time of the civil rights movement but set in an earlier time period, it reflects an important part of American history and exposes practices that young people may not be familiar with.
6 reasons to not teach it
1. It has an old-fashioned writing style and the vocabulary is very sophisticated. There is nothing wrong with students learning new words but it may also prevent a lot of students from understanding and connecting with the novel. The first chapter alone has at least 20 uncommon and archaic words like “flivver” “beadle” “unsullied”.
2. The characters are stereotypes especially Atticus, Bob Ewell and Tom Robinson.
3. It is about racism seen through the eyes of a white person trying not to offend too many people in 1960. In spite of the storyline, it really doesn’t expose the ugliness of racism and of the world that she describes. It’s all very benign even though Tom Robinson dies. Today’s student is used to a harsher view from both the media and their own experience. They understand what happens but don’t necessarily connect with it because it is sugar-coated in the story.
4. The book was written for adults not teenagers. We see the world through the eyes of a wise child looking back at the events. Many of my students do not see the irony in her voice because they lack either the background knowledge to recognize the references or they are not mature enough readers to appreciate it. If it has to be explained a lot, there is something missing for the reader.
5. The movie version, though dated, is very true to the novel . How many of our students have “watched” the novel and read only pieces of it? In the same vein, there is a plethora of summaries etc. available online to boost the students’ understanding.
6. Finally, there is the ongoing attack that has been leveled at the novel: Atticus, the great white father etc. This is really like # 3 but from a more scholarly perspective. There are many critics of the novel and their points cannot be ignored.
I have tried to give a balanced view of the novel here. Ultimately, I believe the following:
It no longer has the power it did 30 years ago. My students will say that they liked the book but were disappointed because it is so famous that they expected something else.
It should not be taught at grade 9 or 10 because it is very sophisticated in its style.
In 1960, it was ground-breaking. Not so today, there are thousands of novels that deal with the same topics in more contemporary ways. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes is a good example.
I want my students to actually read their texts not pretend to read. The plot is not compelling enough for a lot of boys who on their own read graphic novels and comic books. If we want them to read literature we have to give them stories with more action.
Teachers have to reflect on the value of what they are teaching. Too many teachers love things because of their wonderful lesson plans or their own nostalgia for a text. There is too much of that going on in your average English class and it is not keeping pace with our ever-changing generations.