Since its publication in 1960, Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” has become one of the most challenged works of literature of all time. Parents, students and school officials alike have pushed for its removal from curriculum because of the language, racial themes and inclusion of adult topics, such as rape and discrimination, according to the American Library Association. Despite this, many school districts have retained it on reading lists in middle and high school curriculums, as they should.
Unfortunately, for eighth graders in Biloxi, Miss., it was announced in early October that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was being pulled from their curriculum. According to the New York Times, the book would remain in the school’s library, but would no longer be a required novel for the school’s English courses. The reason for its removal was the fact that some of the language in the book made people uncomfortable. It is true. Lee’s novel does contain language that is offensive and makes people uncomfortable. Lee uses derogatory terms throughout that were part of the vernacular of the time period, such as “n—–”. However, that is no reason to pull the book from the classroom. If the word (or any other offensive term from the time period’s vernacular) were removed from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it would remove some of the historical accuracy of the novel, which is important for providing context to the plot. The usage of such words illustrates just how strong racial tensions were in the south at the time.
Additionally, good books are supposed to make people uncomfortable, because they—especially those taught in English classes—are meant to encourage thinking. Novels provide a platform for students to be introduced to and begin to discuss controversial topics. With “To Kill a Mockingbird,” students have the opportunity to discuss race relations and discrimination, morals and the cost of choosing to do what is right. All of these are important topics for student development and the understanding of past and present events in our country.
One of the primary arguments for the removal of any book from a classroom or school is that parents, especially, have the right to choose what their children read and are exposed to. Certainly, this is true to some degree as age appropriateness is important. I would never hand “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a third grader. However, as children grow, they need to be exposed to more, including topics and events that cause discomfort. This is how they become well-rounded and well-informed individuals.
Parents cannot protect their children from everything. They will see or hear about race relations and violence on the news because, unfortunately, it still runs rampant in the United States. They will hear offensive language used by another person. Sexual assault is a serious problem that we, fortunately, are beginning to talk about. Some of these things students might—God forbid—experience in school.
There is no protecting a person from the realities of the world, no matter the restrictions on books, television, music and other media.
This is why exposing students to these topics through books in schools is important. We need to teach children to think and grapple with topics so they can continue to do that as adults, not protect them from challenging and uncomfortable subjects and situations. By addressing these things in the classroom, teachers can facilitate discussion in age appropriate ways and support their students as they grapple with difficult topics. Students can learn from their peers and from characters in the books they read. Providing children and young adults with an understanding of controversial issues and the opportunity to formulate their own opinions and perspectives in a safe environment eliminates the shock that comes when protective barriers are removed.
According to the Washington Post, on Oct. 29, Biloxi Junior High School announced that students would have the opportunity to do an in-depth study with their teachers during class and in optional after-school sessions. The book still will not be required reading for all students, and a parent’s permission to participate in the study is required. It’s hard to know for certain whether this study was planned prior to the novel’s removal from the curriculum or was simply a response to the backlash the school received for its decision.
This is better than pulling “To Kill a Mockingbird” completely. However, it is still a disservice to the students who will not be able to participate in the study, either because of their own choice or their parents’ choice. Books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” create opportunities for important conversations about challenging topics. Until we as a society, understand and value books for that
reason (and others), each novel pulled from a classroom eliminates an opportunity for discussion, understanding and the ability to learn from our discomfort and our past.