Why Teach ‘Uncomfortable’ Literature?

mockingbirg.JPGUnpicking the purpose of teaching emotionally and politically sensitive material in the education system.

Jonathan Tait

News broke on Saturday 16th of October that Vice President of the Biloxi School Board Kenny Holloway had defended the removal of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from the curriculum of numerous Mississippi junior high-schools. Holloway’s riposte states: “Some language in the book makes people uncomfortable”.

The Biloxi School Board were provoked to explain their actions after an email sent from a reader to a local Mississippi newspaper The Sun Herald shed light on the matter. The whistleblower alleged the students were told “mid-lesson” that the book would no longer be taught due to the novel’s sensitive content, namely the use of the n-word.

Holloway and his cohorts have entirely missed the point. Lee’s repeated usage of the most verboten slur in the English language on both sides of the Atlantic is a necessary evil in her book.That word should make people uncomfortable. The fact it continues to cause unease makes a solid case that it ought to be taken seriously as a marker for American history.

The biggest reason Harper Lee’s first novel should remain on the syllabus despite its upsetting language is its educative potential to expose young people to the sensitive nature of ‘the n-word’, and what it represents both historically and contemporaneously. It is imperative that teenagers are shown the salient points, nuances, and living histories of marginalisation, for those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Comparatively, the furore that former UK Education Secretary Michael Gove elicited when he removed Lee’s novel from the GCSE English syllabus indicates the book’s significance to young adults in the Anglophone world. There is a belief that the messages from this book can transcend the span of the Atlantic and the highlight the problematic history of race relations throughout the 20th Century.

Indeed, Anna Hartnell wrote for the Guardian that Gove’s removal of the novel prevented the capacity of young scholars to “explore political persecution, social exclusion and the oppression of the weak”. its erasure from the syllabus was deemed “parochial”,“regressive”, and woefully ignorant of modern societal construction. Surely, the Biloxi School Board ought to understand that it is of particular importance that the afterlife of Lee’s novel is preserved, especially in the regional, cultural, and national sites where these miscarriages of justice and civil disorder are synonymous.

Holloway’s superintendent Arthur McMillan, assured parents and students that the same lessons on the history of race can be taught with different books. This is a sentiment Holloway reiterated. Both failed to name one potential replacement text. The canon of novels that would be palatable to a young audience and detail the descendants and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, but don’t use the n-word or troubling racial slurs is infinitesimal at best. After all, the book was once endorsed by Holloway and McMillan on their organisation’s syllabus as a text valued for its message that “compassion and empathy are not dependent upon race or education”.

The value of Lee’s social insight has almost continuously transcended her content’s potential to be emotionally and politically fraught. Young adults exposed to the word via her literature will, if nothing else, at least learn the crucial lesson of how their society arrived at this point today. The fact that the n-word in this novel makes people shudder connotes that the book is functioning properly as a social text that indicts institutional racism. The notion of removing this book from the syllabus, for this exact reason, is symptomatic of a concerning trend in American society where history is cowed by a desire to not be discomforted by the realities of racism.