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Does Literature Matter?

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

I had no expectation of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird this year. After all, The Beekman School is a high school, and most American students encounter Harper Lee's seminal work in middle school. But, to my astonishment, many of my students (and not just the international ones!) had not read the book. I myself had not cracked it open since the 8th grade. Teaching this book not only reacquainted me with Lee’s lifelike characters, but it also reminded me of why I chose to teach literature in the first place.

Everything about To Kill a Mockingbird is a testament to why we study literature. Atticus, an upright lawyer in the Deep South town of Maycomb, is the living example of the central lesson of the book: always try to see the situation from the other person's point of view. Reading literature is an exercise in empathy, the kind we should be expressing in everyday life—the kind Atticus exercises towards Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Even though the town is against him, Atticus defends Tom at trial just as he would anyone else. He and his children endure slurs and maltreatment, but Atticus is unflinching in his sense that every person deserves the same kind of justice, no matter what they look like. His children strive to follow his example, and so should we.

Fiction permits us to see the outworking of a person's life in a way that can give us insight into our own experience. As Jem gets older, he seeks to work out the social hierarchy of Maycomb. When he explains his theory to Scout, his younger sister and the sprightly narrator of the novel, she is confused. Folks are just folks, she contends, and she can't make out why they fight so much and make life miserable for each other. The contrast in their thinking reveals that the social strictures adults take for granted are learned habits that children acquire as they get older, not immutable truths to which we must adhere. Indeed, Atticus himself represents Scout's innocent observation that people are just people as he takes on the case of Tom Robinson, despite contention from his neighbors.

Robinson’s harrowing trial, where his innocence is made so clear a 12-year-old could see it, stirred the conscience of a nation in 1960 when the book was published, and again in 1964 when Gregory Peck brought Atticus to life on the silver screen. Some historians profess it sped along the developments of the Civil Rights movement. But most of all, To Kill a Mockingbird is so compelling because it underscores why humans continue to study and produce works of fiction. Literature teaches us something about ourselves. And sometimes it makes an entire nation examine its conscience.

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