Photo courtesy of Kennedy Library via Flickr Creative Commons.
A Biloxi, Mississippi middle school recently removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its eighth grade curriculum, and naturally the decision has been met with everything from irritation to flat-out rage. (The term “banned” has been bandied about, though to actually ban a book means removing it entirely from the library versus simply deciding not to teach it in a classroom).
“There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable,” said Kenny Holloway, Vice President of the Biloxi School Board. “We can teach the same lesson with other books.
“It’s still in our library,” he added. “But they’re going to use another book in the eighth grade course.”
The important element of this situation comes down to whether or not it’s appropriate to teach Mockingbird as part of a middle school curriculum.
Racism still runs rampant in our society today, which means it’s vital that we address it in schools. But using Mockingbird as an entryway into the topic for young teenagers may not be the best way to go about it.
Mockingbird is far more complicated and intense than its young narrator Scout might suggest. It deals not only with racism, but also rape, prejudice, and the intricacies of law. While the book’s Lexile number may indicate that middle school students can read the book, that doesn’t mean they’ll get all the nuances.
“Just because Scout is between the ages of 6-9 doesn’t mean that children close to that age should be reading it,” wrote a Common Sense Media user. “The narrator is telling it as an adult looking back… Just because a child has a broad vocabulary and reads well on a technical level doesn’t mean they really understand the full meaning.”
“A lot of mention is made of various events in history,” noted a Goodreads user. “If you don’t know a lot about history, it will be confusing… Some would get frustrated and put the book down. That would be a shame. To have a bad experience and never want to go back to it.”
Aside from issues of comprehension, it’s also worth noting that Mockingbird tells the story of racism from the point of view of an idealized, privileged white man. That doesn’t mean it has no value, but it does bring into question what a teen’s potentially first introduction to racism should be: an ally’s point of view, or the point of view of the people who actually lived it? There are plenty of other books that focus on issues of racism and prejudice and are equally as valuable as Mockingbird—and more centered around the people who most suffered from it (and still do).
No one likes the idea of censorship. And when schools make choices like this, it can send a negative message, particularly when the reasoning behind it is something unclear like “language” that makes people “uncomfortable.” Our discomfort is what forces us to learn new things and open our minds to what’s really happening in our world. But it’s also important to make sure we’re providing these insights to young students in a way that they can understand—using the voices of the people who actually experience these hardships.