Harper Lee, Satirist, Part One (by Bethany)


I reread To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago, after reading it several times in school. Now I’m reading it again. It’s good, of course, although I don’t think I will ever love it in the way some people do. I am tutoring a ninth grade student who is entering a new school in the fall, and we are reading it because it is part of the ninth grade curriculum at her new school. Parts of this novel just shine: Atticus’ brilliantly wishy-washy (or wishy-washily brilliant) parenting style; the fact that Jem, whom Scout sees as an authority figure, actually gets everything wrong (I think I missed this in earlier readings); Scout’s adorable loathing of the housekeeper, Calpurnia.

But there is one thing I’m loving about this novel this time through that I don’t remember ever noticing before or hearing anyone else comment on: this novel includes some brilliant satire of public education. Scout’s first grade teacher, Miss Caroline, has just arrived from the university and is expected to introduce some new methodology to Maycomb’s small rural school. Jem calls this methodology “the Dewey Decimal System” (as I said, he’s always wrong) – but I’m assuming that the methodology that Miss Caroline studied is based on the theories of John Dewey, who did not invent the Dewey Decimal System (I checked – the DDS was invented by one Melvil Dewey in 1876), but is, among other things, one of the key figures behind progressive education, project-based learning, child-centered education, and the idea that education is intrinsically a social act and can’t be isolated and studied outside of that context. If you ever made a diorama in elementary school, you’ve got John Dewey to thank. If you dressed up in a toga or received a laurel wreath for throwing a discus farther than the other fifth graders at the Greek festival, John Dewey was smiling down at you from teacher heaven, where the copy machine never jams and the coffee maker in the faculty lounge always holds a fresh pot.

To me, the fact that Jem calls Miss Caroline’s method the Dewey Decimal System is notable because it’s a sign (as Jem states outright) that the teachers in the upper grades are talking about Miss Caroline and her new methods. Jem informs Scout that this new system will be in all the grades the following year. Dewey’s method eschews rote learning, so Miss Caroline is appalled that Scout has already learned to read. Miss Caroline’s class is described as “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” (36).

I find all of this fairly hilarious, and I have a more ambitious post planned, in which I’ll really sit down with Dewey’s theories (I’ve read at least one of his books – Experience and Education – and excerpts of others, I think) and write about the connection between this satirical subplot and the larger plot about race and justice and the workings of the adult world. But I haven’t reread the whole novel yet, and I have so, so many other things I need to do.

I’ll get there, I promise. But the take-away lesson for today is that the classroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird are hilarious. I don’t remember them being hilarious, and I don’t think my teachers ever pointed out the humor. I do point it out to my student – and I think she gets it.

So this is it for tonight. I’ll be back soon, with more on To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as Anna Karenina and Robinson Crusoe and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood  and vampire porn and books about introverts and don’t even get me started on The Satanic Verses. That weird lapse I had into focused reading a few weeks ago has officially gone away.

Have a good week, everyone!

This entry was posted in Essays about literature, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Harper Lee, Reviews by Bethany, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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