What Scout And Atticus Teach Us About Schooling

What Scout And Atticus Teach Us About Schooling

Two of the Harper Lee’s legendary characters don’t think much of the place where I and millions of other students first met them.
Emily Olson
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This week, legions of book lovers will get their chance to read something most thought would never exist: the sequel to Harper Lee’s 1960 classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The newly-minted “Go Set a Watchman” follows the beloved Finch family several decades after “Mockingbird.”

Perhaps, like me, you first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for school. In Mrs. Leach’s eighth grade English class, I first cracked open the classic and found a book that will remain forever on my favorites list. But in multiple re-readings over the years, I’ve noticed that two of the primary characters don’t think much of the place where I and millions of other students first met them. There’s Scout, the young spitfire tomboy, and Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.

In their own ways, the two resist racial prejudices built into their community and the justice system in 1930s Alabama. But they also don’t hide their distaste for problems they see in Maycomb schools and public education generally.

Scout’s Unsatisfying School Experience

Before crossing the schoolhouse threshold, Scout already views its contents with skepticism. This isn’t surprising, given that she’s a child faced with new experiences. But her suspicions soon develop into an all-too-understandable derision. Miss Caroline, her first-grade teacher, displays a naiveté of her students further hampered by—wait for it—her teacher training.

Miss Caroline, her first-grade teacher, displays a naiveté of her students further hampered by—wait for it—her teacher training.

She nearly faints at the physical dirtiness of one student, then cowers when he confronts her. She embarrasses a hungry student and requires a lesson in local social hierarchy from another. On top of all that, she mystifies the class with a mind-numbingly silly story, then tells Scout she needs to stop reading and writing at home so she can learn “correctly” at school. And all of this happens on Scout’s first day.

Unfortunately, things do not improve. “The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first,” Scout reflects. “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.”

From Jem, her older brother, Scout learns that the philosophies and practical content of education she encounters—referred to by Jem as the Dewey Decimal System—were not always what students had to stomach. She can’t compare her experience to anything else but the Dewey way, though, and to what she has witnessed firsthand in adults she respects. So Scout makes a startling observation: “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.”

‘Twelve Years of Unrelieved Boredom’

Scout’s lawyer father, who also serves in the state legislature, and her doctor uncle are humble, highly learned men, and miles ahead of most of the locals in understanding the wider world. With their example in front of her, Scout rightly points to reading widely as the primary source of knowledge gathering.

Scout rightly points to reading widely as the primary source of knowledge gathering.

Then she makes a claim she never revises: “[As] I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, 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.”

This is a damning indictment of public education, to say the least—remember, this comes from a beloved protagonist from a Pulitzer-Prize winner that is read widely in public education. Indeed, a recent study found it was the number one most-assigned public-school reading. Sadly, it appears to Scout that the only consistent lessons public school wants to teach are a form of peer-determined socialization and institutionalized boredom. The same can be said of another state-run institution: prisons. And Scout certainly sees her public schooling as a sentence to be fulfilled.

Equal Worth Doesn’t Mean Equal Ability

Another criticism comes from Atticus, Scout’s venerable father, and it comes when he makes his closing argument defending Tom Robinson, the man accused of rape.

Atticus explains that equality is not some magic fairy, dumping equal parts wisdom and wealth on every human being.

Atticus appeals to the jurors’ understanding of justice and of its moral universality by first acknowledging how people can misunderstand it—in particular, educators and administrators at schools: “The most ridiculous example [of the idea that all men are created equal] I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.”

It’s obvious, Atticus explains, that equality is not some magic fairy, dumping equal parts wisdom and wealth on every human being. Despite this, all people deserve equality of justice in a courtroom. He nods to the failures that happen there, but emphasizes that they “are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

Here, Atticus illuminates a well-intentioned but faulty logic in public education that attempts to equalize both intellectual abilities and feelings in students. Both kinds of attempts are impossible endeavors, of course. Left unchecked, they breed their own kind of settled institutional prejudices, from mindless bureaucracy to thoughtless racism, which Scout also observes firsthand in a teacher attending the trial. In “Mockingbird,” Scout and Atticus end up teaching that both the education and justice systems should aspire to a morality greater than their flaws. First, though, we have to see these flaws.

Greatness Doesn’t Mean Perfection

From what I’ve heard so far about “Watchman,” Atticus himself falls prey to some of the very blindness he seeks to point out in “Mockingbird.” Whether this invalidates his moral authority on any subject, including on public education, is another conversation. Scout remains a heroine, though, in part because she wrestles with how to reconcile her father’s flaws with his great courage.

At the very least, as “Watchman” gets analyzed and scrutinized in the coming days, weeks, and years, I hope the novel provides a renewed discussion of what great literature can teach us, particularly about what and how we learn, especially from our failures, both personal and institutional.

We can all acknowledge some of public education’s great strengths and benefits. Personally—and to name but one small example—I encountered some excellent literature there like “Mockingbird” that has shaped my life. I am exceedingly thankful for that.

Meanwhile, the lessons that I learned from that literature, like the importance of valuing every human life regardless of skin color or circumstance, I hope will continue to influence my outlook and practical life. If I and others continue to lionize “Mockingbird” for its insights on racial parity—as we should—perhaps it’s time for us to glean insights from the novel about educating children, too.

Emily Olson writes the "Thoughts in the Heartland" column for the Pipestone County Star. She lives with her husband and five children in Minnesota.

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