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.
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.
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.