What is Education For? – To Kill a Mockingbird and Medieval Literature

Guest Post by Eric Weiskott. Weiskott teaches medieval English poetry at Boston College; he’s working on a book about the division of the past into medieval and modern periods.

Last month Biloxi School District administrators pulled Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird from the junior high curriculum. “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable,” explained Kenny Holloway, vice president of the school board. The book remains in the school’s library but will no longer regularly be taught to 8th graders. (Administrators later backtracked slightly, permitting interested students to read To Kill a Mockingbird if their parents sign a permission slip.)

The Biloxi School District’s decision to ban the novel, and their partial reversal of that decision, bring to the surface urgent debates about what education should do and whom it should serve. These debates transcend the particular merits of To Kill a Mockingbird or any other school text. As a professor and a specialist in medieval literature, I know that institutions of education historically have struggled with the choice between reinforcing the status quo and imagining a better future. In this, they resemble society at large. By banning To Kill a Mockingbird, Biloxi administrators caved to a pernicious vision of the social mission of education, in which comfort trumps justice. That vision, and its utopian opposite, have histories, reaching all the way back to the Middle Ages.

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In late medieval England, grammar school was an experience reserved for boys. The sons of some poor families had access to free or subsidized grammar schools—an early but limited version of public education. Higher education at Oxford or Cambridge was beyond the means of most.

Strong bonds existed between educational and religious institutions in this period. Grammar schools often fell under the purview of bishops, and theology was the jewel of university curricula. The connection between education and religion did not simply enforce subservience to church and state authorities, as we might assume today. On the contrary, the spiritual mission of education could provoke students to contemplate new and better futures for society.

One medieval Englishman dissatisfied with the state of contemporary education was a cleric named William Langland. In Piers Plowman, an allegorical religious and political poem of the late 14th century, Langland indicts the educational institutions of his day for serving the interests of the powerful. In one memorable scene, the narrator Will finds himself at a feast with Reason, Patience, and a fat doctor of divinity. The menu is mostly scripture, though soup, stew, and wine are also on offer. In this psychedelic scene, the doctor stuffs his face and bloviates on theology. Will remarks to himself that the university man is “a selfish glutton with two big cheeks— / He has no pity on us poor people; he misdoes / What he preaches and does not demonstrate compassion.”

Langland offers Piers Plowman itself as an alternative to actually existing institutions of learning. The poem takes the form of a spiritual education, an extracurricular exercise in envisioning a just society. It is supposed to make you uncomfortable. Will (at different moments, a given name or a personification of the will) discourses with Holy Church, Clergy, Theology, friars, and a host of other authoritative ‘persons.’ In building this educational/spiritual itinerary, Langland drew on the texts and skills that he encountered in grammar school: most obviously, literacy itself, but also Latin biblical commentaries and the moralizing aphorisms of the Latin Distichs of Cato, then a popular school text.

Late medieval English schooling had many problems, but banned textbooks were not among them. The era of book-banning in England got going in the 16th century. Henry VIII issued a list of banned books in 1526. Eight years later, he declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. At this time, formal education was still largely the privilege of the sons of the wealthy.

If anything, the English Reformation further entrenched the division between the powerful and everyone else. Church and state were now officially one. When the Puritan poet John Milton argued against state censorship in his treatise Areopagitica (1644), he made an exception for “Popery and open superstition.” Still taught today in law schools as a foundational text of free-speech libertarianism, Areopagitica places severe restrictions on what counts as free. Milton’s ideal public sphere excluded explicitly Catholic ideas. In the same year, Milton published Of Education, in which he proposed a course of study in a slew of subjects daunting even by 17th-century standards. Milton was working as a schoolmaster in London at this time.

The story of public education as we know it begins in the 19th century, with the establishment of national primary, secondary, and higher educational systems in Britain and the United States. Viewed from one angle, this is a story of liberalization, of the democratization of learning. This history can be recounted in firsts. Yale College graduated its first black student (Richard Henry Green) in 1857, its first women students more than a century later, in 1971.

Viewed from another angle, these changes in the constituency of schools highlight the uncomfortable dissonance between ideals and reality. Richard Henry Green graduated into a United States that still had not “in its whole system of reality evolved any place for” him—to quote James Baldwin’s famous comments on American blackness in 1965, delivered in a debate with William F. Buckley at the University of Cambridge. (In 1951, Buckley had published God and Man at Yale, attacking what he regarded as the arrogant liberalism and secularism of the curriculum.) Yale College would not award a degree to another black student until 1874. In 1971, the first women graduates of Yale College still had a year to wait for Title IX.

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To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in a fictional Alabama town and depicts a legal confrontation between Jim Crow and true justice. The state of Mississippi has a shameful record on public school desegregation. Lee’s novel appeared in 1960. Two years later, white segregationists rioted at the University of Mississippi over the court-ordered matriculation of James Meredith, a black man. Ironically, Biloxi was the first school district in the state to nominally desegregate, which it did in 1964.

The curriculum of a Mississippi middle school matters because the social and ethical mission of education is not—has never been—settled and complete. The goals of education continue to be partial in both senses of the word: biased by the current inequitable distribution of social power, and not yet fulfilled. Present-day religiously affiliated institutions of education may be in a position to understand this better than some others. Boston College, where I teach, is a Catholic Jesuit university committed to “the pursuit of a just society”—notice the word pursuit—an objective that I try to live up to in the classroom.

For many who took to social media to condemn the initial decision of the Biloxi administrators, the scandal was precisely that education should “make people uncomfortable.” Holloway’s assurance that “we can teach the same lesson with other books” rang hollow because Harper Lee’s representation of overt racism, including use of the word “nigger,” is essential to the book’s ethical project. To Kill a Mockingbird  even thematizes the connection in an after-school scene. “Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” “Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout,” Atticus responds. “’s what everybody at school says.” “From now on it’ll be everybody less one—” “Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin’ that way, why do you send me to school?” responds the precocious Scout. This question gets to the heart of the matter.

The administrators’ compromise solution is something of a cop-out. It puts the predilections of parents in between students and Lee’s text. That the political imagination of To Kill a Mockingbird has, after all, certain limits, characteristic of mid 20th-century Alabama, only underlines the irony of a Mississippi school declaring the novel out of bounds in this century.

Murder of Disabled Family Members

This tweet is a small thread of resources on filicide in response to a recent story from PA. In Chicago, of course, folks are discussing the suicide of a woman who murdered her autistic son. I choose not to link to her story, as the press coverage is full of sympathy for her.

Let’s instead think about a society so ableist in which a disabled adult and her mother are “never seen.”

When Assistive Tech Goes Obsolete

Gizmodo reporter Jennings Brown wrote a great article, “The last of the iron lungs” last week. It’s very well done, with good interviews, a sense of the history of polio, and this:

Understandably, Lillard lives in a constant state of anxiety over the functionality of her iron lung. But she said the company responsible for servicing the device, Philips Respironics, hasn’t been much help. She recalls one time when a repair person disassembled the machine to make a repair, then tried to leave before putting it back together. Another technician took it apart and couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so Lillard had to call another mechanically skilled friend, Jerry House, to help.

Brown added, later:

When I met with the Randolphs, Mark gave me photocopies of old service manuals and operating instructions. He filled me in on little-known history about the Emerson iron lung and its inventor, whom they met at a Post-Polio convention. I realized what each of these iron lung users have in common are the aid of generous, mechanically skilled friends and family. And that’s probably the main reason they’ve been able to live long and full lives, despite the hardships and anxieties of depending on aging machinery to survive.

READ THE WHOLE THING.

But also read this amazing thread by Maria Town, who engages the broader issues of when tech for people with disabilities goes obsolete.

This example struck close to home.

GOP Plan for Higher Ed

The GOP tax plan is intended to limit the potential for higher education to enable class movement.

The GOP tax plan is calculated not just to shift wealth upward, but also to remove some of the educational tools that make it possible for people to shift their own class status. It’s not just tuition waivers. As detailed in The Atlantic, spread across undergraduate and graduate education, the GOP plan would strip funding from all fields, and sow chaos. For example, Republicans also want to eliminate student loan interest deductions and force students who don’t graduate to repay Pell Grants. Overall, according to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, the cost of education would go up by $71 billion over 10 years.

The Republicans have crafted a vision for American higher education in which only the already-elite can chase their dreams, study deeply, develop new ideas, and become the creators of tomorrow. The GOP tax plan is what class warfare looks like.

READ THE WHOLE THING PLEASE!

Al Franken

I wrote about Al Franken. I don’t think I could vote for him.

I’m an American citizen, a Minnesotan, and I have one vote. When I look at the ballot in 2020, I won’t use it to support Al Franken. Not now. Possibly not ever.

But the GOP can shut the hell up until they clean their house:

Despite living in a glass house built by men accused of sexual harassment and assault, Republicans are eager to throw stones. They want to talkHillary Clinton and Harvey Weinstein, the accusations against Bill Clinton, and now Franken.

The hypocrisy is staggering. Right now, there’s a president, a Supreme Court justice (Clarence Thomas) and the GOP candidate for Alabama senator who face or have faced credible allegations of vile actions. The victims in these narratives were all vulnerable by reason of age, job, race or other forms of status. These men allegedly exploited their power to abuse and have never been held to account. The GOP doesn’t seem to care, so long as they get their votes.

Howard Kurtz, on Fox News, questioned any call to talk about Trump because after the allegations came out, “We had an election … and he won.” Alabama Republicans have effectively acknowledged that even if Roy Moore’s accusers are believable, getting Moore’s vote on GOP policies is worth electing another predator. As for Clarence Thomas, the only person being held accountable for his alleged abusive actions seems to be Joe Biden, who as a senator presided over Thomas’ confirmation hearings. When even Donald Trump, of all people, dared to tweet about Franken’s misconduct, I found myself shaking with anger at the President’s smug audacity.

In the face of the GOP resistance to taking responsibility for electing known predators, it’s easy to want to circle the wagons around Franken. What Franken is accused of doing is not nearly as destructive as the allegations against Moore or Trump. What’s more, being principled on Franken won’t shame GOP members into changing their ways. Anyone who watched the “Access Hollywood” tape and supported Trump is likely beyond such shame.

Florida and Criminalizing Autism

Last April I wrote about the arrest of John Haywood, a ten year old autistic boy, who sobs as he’s taken to the police career, his mother filming it. The video went viral, as well it should, because it’s awful. I wrote:

If the video shocks you, and it should, imagine how often children with autism or other disabilities are being arrested in situations where there’s no video, no parent present and no viral outrage. If teachers, administrators, and cops continue to criminalize children for violating what I have come to call a “cult of compliance,” punishing them for acting in ways that come naturally, how can we decriminalize disability?

Seven months later, despite the media outcry, the boy still faces charges, isn’t in school, and nothing has changed.

Viral videos aren’t enough.

Diplomats with Disabled Kids

In the endless litany of horrible things that the Trump administration is doing to disabled folks and their families, I missed this one. According to Foreign Policy, the Trump State Department is slashing funding for diplomats who have disabled children.

On Thursday, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the State Department questioning the department’s “troubling” plans to cut support for foreign service officers who have children with disabilities.

The Washington Post first reported on Oct. 29 that the State Department had quietly cut support for families with disabled children, including therapy, extended education, and one-on-one school aides. The Post also reported the State Department has suddenly barred some children from going abroad with their families.

“We ask enough of our diplomats,” the senators wrote in a letter addressed to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. “Our actions should demonstrate the value that they bring to the State Department and the nation — not make it harder for them to serve.”
Foreign service officers typically take their spouses and families with them as they bounce between posts around the world. The State Department has provided allowances and other forms of support to foreign service officer families with disabled children so they can receive care and education comparable to what they would receive at home.

As I read this, basically diplomats have the right to fully access the benefits of U.S. special education and U.S. medicine when stationed overseas, should their families require it. That makes sense.

Naturally, it’s being cut.

You can read the Washington Post report here.

Ohio Abortion Ban

It’s happening. Ohio is going to pass an anti-choice bill that criminalizes speech between a woman and her doctor. I wrote about the ban here. Kasich will surely sign it. I’m pretty livid.

This won’t help people with Down syndrome. It’s not intended to. It just keeps spreading stigma on the one hand, while serving as a vehicle to restrict reproductive rights on the other.

Red States and Disability

My latest in The Nation:

Mostly buried beneath early November’s onslaught of news, stories from Oklahoma, Iowa, and Maine reveal the ways that state governments, through both apparent incompetence and maliciousness, are failing disabled residents and their families. In the first two examples, disability programs are being cut as a result of self-imposed budget crises. In the third, the governor is using disability as a shield to ignore the will of the voters, while at the same time not serving disabled Mainers.

Oklahoma is the worst of the three. At the beginning of November, agencies received letters stating that the “ADvantage Waiver,” a program funding home-based care for disabled individuals and seniors, would lose funding as of December 1. About 21,000 Oklahomans will lose the care that enables them to live independently. About 10,000, according to the Department of Human Services, will be forced to move into nursing homes—except that the state doesn’t have enough beds in nursing homes. So disabled Oklahomans are caught waiting to find out what will happen: Will they be trapped in their homes without services? Will they be forced into nursing homes or Hospitals? Will they be abandoned?

The problem, of course, is money. The conservative state has stripped awayits tax base in a wave of Tea Party glee. Now it’s broke and, rather than raise taxes (a budget just failed to pass in special session), it is closing nursing homes and slashing Medicaid.

Intellectual Disability and Vietnam

This is an incredible article on, as they were called at the time, “McNamara’s Morons,” people with intellectual disabilities drafted into the Vietnam War.

One morning in the summer of 1967, I was among about 100 men at the Armed Forces induction center in Nashville. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and I had volunteered for the Army. A sergeant walked into the room and announced that all of us would leave soon to begin training in Fort Benning, Ga. Then he asked, “Is anyone here a college graduate?”

I raised my hand, and he motioned me to follow him. He took me down a hallway to a bench where I was introduced to a young man I’m going to call Johnny Gupton, to protect his privacy. Gupton was also assigned to Fort Benning. “I want you to take charge of this man,” the sergeant told me. “Go with him every step of the way.” He explained that Gupton could neither read nor write, and would need help in filling out paperwork when we arrived at Benning. Then he added: “Make sure he doesn’t get lost. He’s one of McNamara’s Morons.”

I had never heard the term, and I was surprised that the sergeant would openly insult Gupton. But I learned quickly that “McNamara’s Morons” was a term that many officers and sergeants used to refer to thousands of low-I.Q. men like Gupton who were taken into the military under a program devised by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

There’s also a documentary.