When I was about to make a Zoom call a few weeks ago, I remembered he was sitting right behind me. I hastened to replace him. It was a simple embarrassment to have “this” book.
James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh is now having the same stampede. The school wants To Kill a Mockingbird removed from the program for third years because of its description of the breed and the “white savior” story. This change is part of an effort to “decolonize” the curriculum.
The goal is admirable, but the method is totally wrong. He is motivated by social embarrassment and not by a new commitment to critical thinking. The school seems to forget that the Scottish Qualification Authority exams include questions such as ‘discuss’, ‘compare’, ‘analyze’ and ‘assess’. There is nothing better than a controversial and seminal text for students to dissect.
Professor Jordan Peterson also made this point. Writing as a means of obtaining grades is not a guarantee of real thoughtfulness. Writing asks you to assess and formulate your own argument, defend it, critique it, and give a conclusion. All of this for school-aged students depends on the material that ignites their passions.
Diluting a curriculum because it presents controversial language or problematic themes raises two points. First, the motivations for culturally canceling Mockingbird are a gold mine for students to assess. Second, the story of how archetypal hero Atticus Finch became a villain is a microcosm of larger societal debates. The book should be thoughtful (regardless of the reading).
George Orwell and Ray Bradbury were cited to death for censorship and book burning. Without any loss of irony, comparative dystopian literature was the subject of my graduate thesis (ahem) a few years ago. But it’s Aldous Huxley who brings up the most overlooked point about the book ban: what if humans just stop caring?
Cancel the culture that abandons To Kill A Mockingbird and rejects David Livingston …
Huxley feared that we would lose interest in literature that defies the spirit. Fast-paced entertainment and faster pleasures make reading the more strenuous choice. Thinking becomes too difficult. We seem to forget that it is hard enough to get young people interested in reading without worrying about whether texts are socially unacceptable.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US military need not apologize for encouraging open-mindedness. He commented on the famous West Point Academy, including Critical Race Theory in its curriculum. He vigorously defended this choice, citing his own plethora of reading choices and the fact that reading Mao and Lenin did not make him a communist.
My embarrassment with owning Hitler’s book centered on the fear of being misunderstood. “My God, if anyone saw me with that, they would think I was a Nazi.” It has all the makings of a screenshot. But creating a hostile environment to even dare to understand something will doom us all.
How often do you hear that a book is sexist, violent or misogynist? The “N word” appears about 40 times in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there is a difference between the author of a book who is racist and the characters in the book. And there is a huge difference between reading something and approving it. There is a difference between a book advocating something horrible and discussing it academically.
No one seems to be saying that Harper Lee is a racist activist. The fact that the charge is not brought shows how artificial and hypocritical the complaints against Mockingbird are. We would condemn Lee if she wrote a book that skirted around the disgusting racism of her day. Killing a mockingbird wouldn’t make a playlist because it was fantastic nonsense disguising brutal realities.
Human rights activist Sir Geoff Palmer has also said: “You can’t solve racism by putting texts with uncomfortable realities in the bucket.” It’s surely better, with all the books or as many texts as the students can get their hands on, If you feel a lasting revulsion at the treatment of Tom Robinson, then it’s a visceral and disturbing memory.
Whether it’s books, statues, movies, or anything that challenges our sensitivity, isn’t that what we need? To remember that real suffering existed? We should keep all we can of our history out in the open. Mostly the worst and most problematic songs. To remove these things is to congratulate short-termism and long-term sabotage. Our culture is too quick to think about anything that isn’t in the face.
The problems we face as a civilization are seismic. They are almost incomprehensibly bad. Most understood Covid-19 with endless references to all the movies that featured a pandemic and where they went well or badly. As we fight climate change, are we going to take The Grapes of Wrath off the playlist because it offends our sensitivity to the grim realities of environmental damage?
Students of all ages need a problem that prompts them to investigate, tear to shreds, or be inspired by it. Reading the text itself should encourage students to read and research thoroughly. This will give way to the ability to digest, form opinions and write succinctly. It is a practiced skill. The pleasure comes from injecting it with its own personality. Denying young people the opportunity to do so sets a horrible precedent.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. You can find out more about Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart.