The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.

 

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Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.

 

Why Do Many College Students Fail To Succeed?

A significant component of the conversation surrounding higher education these days has to do with improving student success—particularly for those college students who start off in remedial/developmental courses in Reading, Writing, and Math. Those who have not closely followed the disturbing trends regarding the completion of bachelor’s degrees on America’s ivied campuses over the last couple of decades might be surprised at where we are now, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education:

The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2009 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2015 at the same institution where they started in 2009. The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 23 percent at private for-profit institutions. The 6-year graduation rate was 62 percent for females and 56 percent for males; it was higher for females than for males at both public (61 vs. 55 percent) and private nonprofit institutions (68 vs. 62 percent). However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher 6-year graduation rate than females (24 vs. 22 percent).” [See “Note” at bottom of this post for explanation of school types.]

Six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in fall 2009 varied according to institutional selectivity. In particular, 6-year graduation rates were highest at institutions that were the most selective (i.e., had the lowest admissions acceptance rates) and were lowest at institutions that were the least selective (i.e., had open admissions policies). For example, at 4-year institutions with open admissions policies, 32 percent of students completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years. At 4-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the 6-year graduation rate was 88 percent.

It should perhaps not be a surprise that 6 year graduation rates, which seems to be the new American standard for completing a 4 year degree, vary so dramatically based solely upon the selectivity of an institution. Indeed, some argue that the overall poor college completion numbers in the United States are simply a function of more and more students seeking college degrees, so we should not be concerned. This is merely, the thinking goes, Darwinian academic selection at work.

However, the fly in the ointment is fairly easy to discern: An educational system that excels at educating only the brightest is failing the vast majority of America’s college students. Fixes that have been proposed or enacted to address problems with college completion rates range from more structured programs of study to increases in financial aid to campus mentoring programs—all of which have the potential to help some students after they arrive on campus but fail to address the underlying causes of their academic distress, our chronically underperforming K-12 public schools, which hobble our nation’s students in three key areas:

Poor Work Habits

After years in pokey and desultory high school classes, many students simply do not understand what will be required when they step foot on a college campus for the first time. They mistakenly presume classroom instruction and assignments will continue to slow down to meet their needs and are shocked college instructors will insist academically-deficient students work extra hard to reach college level proficiency—immediately, if not sooner.

Moreover, given that so much of the work in college must be completed outside the classroom because of the limited time available—a class may meet for only a couple of hours each week—the now-fashionable dismissal of homework as a hopelessly antediluvian educational artifact means that many high school graduates will be thrown into a situation where they are wholly unprepared to succeed, one where well-developed and disciplined study habits are an absolute necessity for academic success.

Weak Academic Preparation

Where does one begin? The problems that our nation’s public schools have with teaching and learning are so well-documented by now that they scarcely bear repeating. Of course, many affluent parents continue to comfort themselves by loudly insisting that their children’s public schools—all shiny and new—are doing a great job, but nothing could many times be further from the truth. The fact of the matter, according to a recent study by Education Reform Now, is that 1 in 4 college students will require remedial coursework—and 45% of these students will come from upper-income and middle-income households. Half of these students placing into remedial classes will start in our nation’s community colleges, but the other half will be enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs. Nonetheless, you will find no shortage of individuals and groups loudly proclaiming that America’s public schools are doing a heck of a job.

Denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt.

Lack Of Proper Time Management

This third problem is inextricably linked to the first two. Because they often fail to understand the amount of work they will be required to complete outside of their weekly class meetings—and are often academically unprepared besides—many students are sunk before they even start because they overbook themselves. Not understanding that a full course load is a full-time job in and of itself, students get crushed beneath their other commitments—jobs, children, family, friends, and recreation—and realize too late that there are only a certain number of hours in the week.

In addition, unlike high school classes, where deadlines are often extremely flexible or simply non-existent, college professors take a unsurprisingly flinty view of vacations booked mid-semester and tales of woe regarding the modern equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”, the lost flash drive. Although it might not seem so seen through the lens of popular culture, college is just like a job, and the “supervisors” expect punctuality and performance. I still find it amazing that so many students think nothing of being chronically tardy or absent and routinely fail to turn in their assignments on time—yet they believe their professors are being completely unreasonable if they give a poor grade.

Of course, more in-depth advisement when registering for classes might be a great help to some, but it is often difficult to convince students that college requires a lot of diligent work when they have little experience with anything beyond the dull reality today’s high school: show up when you can, hang out and pay little attention, turn in something you whipped together at the last minute, get a check mark for effort, advance to the next grade level whether you’ve learned anything or not, and eventually receive your diploma.

Ultimately, one question that many college freshman and their parents should be asking is this:

Why do so many public schools give young adults diplomas if they haven’t learned anything?

I wish I had a good answer for that….

 

Note: Public colleges and universities are those that operate with state supervision and support, and institution names—the University of Illinois, for example—are a clear indication of their nature. Private non-profit colleges and universities—what we typically imagine when we think of a college or university—operate with private funding (tuition, fees, endowments, donations, etc.), and their tax-exempt status allows more spending on students and research. Private for-profit colleges and universities are operated by private companies, often focus on career and technical programs—and are accountable to private shareholders who expect a return on their investment.

In Defense Of Free Speech

It would not have occurred to me a decade or so ago that I would ever have to assert my support for the right of an American to express an opinion. One of the wonders of living in the United States—and, in fact, likely our greatest strength—is our free-wheeling, brash, chaotic, and amazingly rich discourse regarding ourselves, our nation, and the world around us. Whether our opinions were rude, lewd, or full of attitude, it was always presumed to be our inalienable right to express them without fear of retribution.

Apparently, this is no longer the case.

Now that speech codes on our college campuses have devolved into “shut up codes” suppressing ideas that don’t fit into somebody’s idea of tolerance (I still shake my head at the inherent irony of this), social media is used as a mechanism to publicly shame those who don’t conform, and mainstream media outlets readily characterize anyone who disagrees with progressive orthodoxy as a bigot, the state of free speech in America seems surprisingly fragile.

Recent violent confrontations at Berkeley (ironically enough, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s) and Middlebury College call into question the very existence of reasoned debate when a few are empowered to simply “shut down” dissenting viewpoints that they deem “hate speech”. Aside from the obvious question of where the line between hate speech and differing opinions is supposed to be—some broadly define hate speech to be virtually anything that might diverge from their own viewpoints and cause the apparently intense discomfort of self-reflection or doubt—one has to wonder how we have reached the point where shockingly many celebrate the practice of censorship by loud, threatening mobs. As scary as some aspects of our contemporary political scene might be, I find people shouting down speakers a great deal more frightening—especially when I consider the historical antecedents of such actions.

If you disagree with someone’s ideas, please listen respectfully—and explain your own viewpoint with a minimum of personal attacks. As personally satisfying as some might find it to “argue through insult”, a civil society requires civil conversations.

Dehumanizing those with differing opinions only invites violent speech—and perhaps violent action—because it communicates that those individuals are not worthy of even the most basic respect. Words have consequences, but the manner in which they are spoken to one another also is important. Those who consider common courtesy a mere bourgeois affectation would do well to remember those times in human history when it was considered appropriate to strip basic human dignity from others because “they deserved it”.

Societies that fail to ensure all their members have a voice generally come to grief, and those individuals who insist that they—and only they—have the right answer to what ails society or the world often have been the enablers of the most brutish episodes in the history of civilization. We would do well to remember this.

Raining In Our Hearts

You Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live, Rock and Roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock, rock, Rock and Roll
The feeling is there body and soul….
School Days by Chuck Berry

I have found myself recently taking a deep dive back into the filmed musical performances of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and marveling at just what an amazing explosion of raw musical talent drove rock and roll in its earliest years. Moreover, the sheer energy with which these young men and women performed is an almost textbook example of the type of innocent exuberance we associate with those years—after we put on our rose-colored glasses.

Of course, we know those years were no more innocent than any other time in our history. Problems still existed behind those bright eyes and bouncy melodies. However, even knowing what we know today, listening to the opening riffs of Johnny B. Goode or Surfin’ U.S.A. will bring a smile to our faces, and we can still hear the joy those artists felt as they reached inside themselves to find new ways to reach us.

How very long ago that all seems….

Today we are perhaps a shade too jaded for our own good. Too self-aware. Too ironic. Too prematurely weary of life. More than once I’ve realized just how impossible it is too suggest that someone’s motives might be pure without being judged to be hopelessly naive.

Part of this problem is basic: many people in our society are damaged—and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Our cultural encouragement for addictions (take your pick!), sybaritic self-indulgence, and a lack of personal responsibility has destroyed more lives than The Black Plague. This has now dragged generation upon generation through horrific family dysfunction and breakdown, which has produced generations of teenagers whose default settings run the gamut from hot rage to cold disappointment. We sadly seem to now excel at producing prematurely burnt-out young men and women, which is not a prescription for a healthy and happy nation.

This all hit home for me some years ago when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of 9th graders. Aside from the obvious difficulty with working through history and language with which they were not at all familiar, another problem presented itself when we reached the scene with Juliet on the balcony and the love-struck Romeo in the garden below.

The reactions of my students—particularly the girls—to Romeo’s words of love and utter worship were both stark and harsh: Beware! I was, I will admit, a bit taken aback at first by the bitter worldliness and smug assurance of some of their comments:

“Oh, he’s just trying to get in her pants.”
“She’s an idiot if she believes that.”
“He’s got some moves!”
“All guys say stuff like than when they’re wanting some!”
“Just how stupid is this girl?”

The beauty of The Bard’s words of love were lost on these high school students, and I attempted to understand just why I was hearing these responses. I will always remember the chilling reality check that class period provided.

Many of the children in that classroom—and they were all children despite their all-too-mature understandings of human weakness and failure—were the products of home lives that, to be charitable, just plain sucked. Most had parents who were divorced or who had never married. Many had fathers who were largely absent. Some had mothers who were M.I.A. Others had bounced through foster care. A few had direct experiences with police officers or social workers entering their homes because of fights and abuse—and arrests had sometimes followed. “Home Sweet Home” they were not.

It was a litany of horrors until the bell rang, and I had to come back the next day and try to explain that, although it could perhaps be argued that Romeo and Juliet’s love was unhealthfully obsessive in the way that young love sometimes tends to be, it would be a mistake to presume that their emotions were anything other than genuine. If my students were willing to suspend some little portion of their stunning disbelief about the possibility of genuine love between two people, the play might be both intriguing and instructive.

I am not certain how effective of a Shakespeare salesman I actually was, but we made it through the play. Whether I managed to wear down just a little of the rough callous already covering too many of those young hearts, I cannot really say. I shuddered to imagine just how disillusioned and defeated so many of those youngsters would be by the time they hit sixteen. Where were the hopes and dreams that are supposed to be the touchstones of youth?

I wonder sometimes whether we have grown so accustomed to the damage inflicted upon our children that we have grown blind to it. We no longer notice the dreary and depressing—or scary and violent—music and films that fill their days and minds. We perversely celebrate piercing and tattoos as a form of self-expression and empowerment, which they may be for some, instead of recognizing it as simply the more socially acceptable form of “cutting” that it likely is for many. Are the cries resonating across our college campuses for safe spaces and trigger warnings actually desperate pleas for our colleges and universities to substitute for the protective parents that were terribly absent in far too many lives?

Every period in human history has its problems; these problems simply manifest themselves in a manner unique to their time period. Rock and Roll was itself a rebellion against mid-20th century cultural and social norms that many found stifling, and Elvis haunted the nightmares of many parents who were certain their children were going straight to hell in a handbasket. It is certain that every American generation has had its issues and somehow survived them.

However, there is a matter of degree that must be considered. I cannot really see the equivalency between teenagers screeching out their excitement at a Beatles concert and the violent element of the Juggalos exchanging tips for cooking Meth at Insane Clown Posse gatherings. Something has clearly changed, and continuing to blame the pharmaceutical industry, added sugar, Donald Trump, or plastic baby bottles for the skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety that now are typical among the young—and no longer quite so young—segments of our society is beginning to sound sillier by the day. Cruelty and coarseness now seem baked into virtually every aspect of our daily culture and conversations, and this didn’t happen just because we drank too many cans of Dr. Pepper when we were in middle school.

We often look for easy explanations to complex problems, but perhaps the answer for much that ails our souls and psyches is more obvious than we imagine: we need to address the voids within ourselves in order to begin the hard work of healing our families, communities, and our nation. Although we might desperately wish for some outside semi-parental force to swoop in and rescue us, this is something that we simply must do for ourselves if we want to avoid creating, enabling, or stupidly celebrating more pain in ourselves and others.

So Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll—please