WASHINGTON – The desire to protect young people from offensive ideas and words is an understandable instinct. In the context of bullying, it is a requirement. In the context of great literature, it is nearly always mistaken.
The distinction between the language of the schoolyard and the language of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has somehow been lost on the Biloxi, Mississippi, school board, which recently decided to remove the book from the eighth-grade curriculum. “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable,” explained Kenny Holloway, the vice president of the board.
The purpose of Lee’s classic, of course, is to make people uncomfortable with racial prejudice. To do so, it reflects the language employed by bigots in the segregated South, including the N-word. Given a desire to present the repulsive reality of racism, it could hardly do otherwise.
But are the eighth-graders talking and giggling in the back row ready to handle that reality? Some, surely, are not. How, then, are children adequately prepared? For generations of students, an essential part of that preparation has been the reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is an education in empathy.
The book may be narrated by a white child, but its whole purpose is to place the reader in the shoes of an unjustly accused black man – to provoke anger at a legal system that betrays him and disgust with a social system that dehumanizes him. One child, Dill, nearly vomits in reaction to the sick parody of justice he sees in the courtroom. We are intended to feel the same nausea.
The themes of the book – social stratification, the sexual subtext of racism, the institutionalization of injustice – are suited to adults. But Lee attempted to capture and encourage the pre-cynical outrage of children toward the horrors of the adult world. This is exactly what we would hope an educated eighth-grader to feel.
Some of the best literature for children and young adults encourages moral reflection on the cruel reality created by adults. Read “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” as I did with my son. It is the story of a 12-year-old Japanese girl who develops leukemia as a result of the Hiroshima atom bomb. In order to be granted a wish, she resolves to fold 1,000 origami cranes, reaching 644 before she is too sick to continue. Her friends and family finish the task, and the cranes are buried with her.
Is it uncomfortable to consider that America took actions resulting in the irradiation of Japanese children? Is it hard to explain to a child? It should be.
Or consider the fine graphic novel “American Born Chinese,” in which Danny, the Americanized, suburban child of Chinese immigrants, is embarrassed by the yearly arrival of his cousin Chin-Kee, who embodies every destructive Asian stereotype. In the book, Chin-Kee turns out to be the Monkey King, a deity who encourages Danny to embrace his true identity.
Was the exaggerated presentation of Asian stereotypes in the book uncomfortable for my biracial child? I should hope so. But it was placed within a moral story that rejects exclusion and encourages the acceptance of ethnic identity. Cutting out the offensive parts would have left the story powerless.
Our society has developed a deep confusion about the meaning of education. For some – both the advocates of safe spaces and the banners of books – the goal is the preservation of purity. They want to protect students and educational institutions from defilement by words and ideas they find offensive. It is more of a tendency than an ideology. The same pursuit of purity can motivate offended conservatives or offended liberals. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been targeted, at various times, by both.
But education must mean more than the avoidance of offense. One purpose is surely to take the horrible, offensive things that populate reality and put them in a moral context – to train our emotional and intellectual reactions to uncomfortable human failings. The greatest stories confront the worst of human nature with the best of the human spirit. We diminish their power by lowering the stakes.
This means that true education always involves risk – particularly the risk of giving offense. But students are not defiled by the existence of terrible words and ideas. They are defiled by the acceptance or normalization of those words and ideas. Which is precisely what “To Kill a Mockingbird” – and all true education – sets out to prevent.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.