Why Scout Finch Hates School – the Best Novel of the Century on Education

Scout Atticus

Scout learns to read from her father Atticus at home.

“Scout” Finch’s first day in school exposes the pretentious and often hollow ambitions behind progressive education in the 1930s and today. The beloved characters from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provide timeless insight on public education. Scout’s father Atticus was taught at home with books and scripture and for Scout, reading was nothing short of breathing; she could read and write before she ever set foot in school. Scout’s teacher Miss Caroline was not pleased. After printing the alphabet in “enormous square capitals,” she asked if anybody knew what they were.

As I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 2)

Scout disagrees with Miss Caroline, saying Atticus hadn’t taught her anything, but her teacher believes she’s lying, tells her again her father doesn’t know how to teach, and to have a seat.

I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers….. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills To Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow – anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. (Chapter 2)

Scout’s brother Jem who is older and wiser, checks in with her at recess.

“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way . . .’

The Dewey Decimal System consisted in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “ran,” “man,” and “you.” . . . I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. “Besides,” she said. “We don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.” (Chapter 2)

By write, she means writing in cursive.  Miss Caroline and Melvil Dewey might be surprised to learn children don’t write today, signing one’s name included. See how far we’ve come?

Education – Then & Now

A Failed Approach

Harper Lee’s critique of public education in the 1930s is spot on, the unfiltered child’s view is laugh-out-loud funny for readers not just because of the anecdotes, but because 85 years later they still ring true. Scout attempts to teach her teacher about Maycomb County, the Cunninghams who can’t afford lunch and the Ewells who show up for just the first day of school to avoid the truant officer. But it’s of no use, Scout ends up in the corner.

The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything—at least, what one didn’t know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. (Chapter 4)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Jem may confuse the Dewey Decimal System with the pedagogy of the day, but Dewey wrote about progressive education because he believed students should be involved, that educators should be partners in their learning. Maybe Dewey would be disappointed at the ongoing reinvention of a “well-meaning” yet futile system still around today. Harper Lee makes her point in this passage about Units, teaching techniques, group dynamics, and the relative merit of all of it compared to learning at home and from books: fruitless.

I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me. (Chapter 4)

How’s that, coming from the author of the best novel of the century? This recognition of her masterpiece as best novel comes from the Library Journal, a publication founded by Melvil Dewey. Isn’t it ironic?

Miss Caroline’s condescension is exceeded only by her ignorance and her arrogance, reminding us a lot of today’s edu-crats who have crafted the latest in 21st century learning. The Common Core State Standards will ensure “college and career ready” graduates.

In the 1920s it was called “progressive education”; in the late 1940s and early 50s it was called “Life Adjustment” education; in the late 1960s and early 70s it was called “open classrooms”; and the early 1990s version took the name “outcome-based” education. They were all versions of the same permissivist program that downplays the authority of the teacher, focuses on the psyche of the child, and shuns an intellectual focus in favor of job skills. (Memoria Press, Newest Round of Permissivist Education)

Calpurnia the Cook and Thomas Jefferson on Education

The Classical Approach

Here’s Harper Lee at her level best on learning to write.

Scout “blames” the cook Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird for teaching her to write, a cause for guilt in Miss Caroline’s classroom. If only students today could blame our public school teachers for such faults.

Calpurnia was to blame for this. It kept me from driving her crazy on rainy days, I guess. She would set me a writing task by scrawling the alphabet firmly across the top of a tablet, then copying out a chapter of the Bible beneath. If I reproduced her penmanship satisfactorily, she rewarded me with an open-faced sandwich of bread and butter and sugar. In Calpurnia’s teaching, there was no sentimentality: I seldom pleased her and she seldom rewarded me. (Chapter 2)

Scout learned to write through penmanship, copying, and studying scripture, three classical methods not so popular today. I’m not a practicing Christian, but Rod & Staff was the best English text I found for my children during a year of home school and the Biblical lessons were good study. They learned more English in one year, just 20 to 30 minutes a day, than they have in all their years in school. “No sentimentality” is telling, the absence of the emotional coddling and child centered approach ubiquitous today. Calpurnia left Scout to focus on the work, finish the job, no judgment, coddling, or emotion necessary. If she did well, she earned a sandwich.

Like Lee, Thomas Jefferson believed in books, great books, scripture or otherwise. Jefferson was many things, not the least of which was a scholar and author of the Declaration of Independence. After his retirement from public life in 1809, he received a letter from a fellow Virginian, unknown to him, asking his advice on “acquiring an education.”

Jefferson replied.

Poplar Forest May 23. 1822

I receive here your favor of the 20th expressing your desire to enlarge your stock of knowledge, than which nothing can be more commendable; but I should not think your purpose of attending an Instructor at all necessary. We have now such excellent elementary books in every branch of science as to make every subject as plain as a teacher can make it. . . .  (Link to letters)

Jefferson suggested he “avoid wasting time on books of little merit.” Believing so strongly in an education through books and libraries, Jefferson founded and designed University of Virginia around its library. He believed in studying excellent books on ancient history, English history, sciences, philosophy.

It’s simple: study great works, focus on content, work on skills. Maybe that’s not sexy enough, but it’s effective.

Harper Lee’s characters Scout and Atticus might agree on a few things if they were to materialize in our classroom today. Technology aside, as much as things change they remain the same: they would find an endless project funded by well-meaning but misguided bureaucrats, a class not much different than Scout’s class in the 1930s.

*  Recommended reading and letters between Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Echols

Letter from Joseph Echols to Thomas Jefferson

Linchberg 20th May 1822.

Mr. Thomas Jefferson.

       D Sir your extensive Knowledge of mankind and your literary acquirements together with your Philosophy induces me to disclose to you my novel project hoping you will grant me (in confidence) your oppinions [sic] and advice on the subject of my inquiry. The more fully to enable you to form an oppinion [sic] I will give you a sketch of my history.

       I am a Virginian by birth of Respectable but Rather obscure Parentage had no connection or friend in my youth of that standing in life to forward me in my Views and although I had a small patrimony (my Parents died before I was 12 months old) yet my Guardians neglected my education almost entirely. I was permitted to go to School one year at the age of 14 in which time I acquired a Knowledge of the Arithmatick, and which constituted almost the whole of my education. at 17 I was turned loose on the world to shift. Since which time I have been engaged in trade & have Succeeded so well as that the income of my estate is at this time ample to support myself & little family (having a wife & 3 children) in a Genteel or Respectable style and be accumulating Something without my Personal attentions to business — and — although I am now 33 years old I am Particularly desirous of acquiring an education not only that I may Receive the enjoyment of it myself but that I may be more usefull [sic] to Society and more especially with a View to benefit my family. It seems however to be a novel undertaking and you will greatly oblige me to give me your views on the Subject which I hope you will indulge me with and if you think it a Rational Scheme give me your advice as to the particular course I should take & what Schools you would Recommend to me.

       I am of oppinion [sic] I could withdraw my mind from my family and business so as to study as well as ever I could[,] as I could with convenience I presume take my family with me, having only 3 children & 2 of which are of propper [sic] sizes to be at School.

Yours Respectfully
Joseph Echols

Letter in Reply from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Echols

Poplar Forest May 23. 1822

       I receive here your favor of the 20th expressing your desire to enlarge your stock of knolege [sic], than which nothing can be more commendable; but I should not think your purpose of attending an Instructor at all necessary. We have now such excellent elementary books in every branch of science as to make every subject as plain as a teacher can make it. [I]n natural philosophy we have
Joyce’s Scientific dialogues and Nicholson’s Philosophy
in Chemistry the Conversations in Chemistry.
in natural history Basson.
in antient [sic] history the first 20 vols of the Universal history
      Gillies’s history of the world,
      Gillies’s history of Greece
      Livy, Sallust, Caesar, Tacitus, Suetonius.
      Gibbons’s decline of the Roman empire
in Modern history Robertson’s Charles V.
      Russel’s Modern Europe
      Hallam’s history of the middle ages.
in English history Rapin’s history of England 15.v.8
      Belsham’s histories of the 3 Georges
      Baxter’s history of England. I omit Hume as too false in his matter, and too seducing in his style to be trusted
in Astonomy, Ferguson’s Astronomy.
in Mathematics and geometry alone I do not know what are the best English books. at your age I presume you do not propose to throw away 5 or 6 years in Latin and Greek. I am persuaded you will find science enough in the English language to employ your life and especially if you avoid wasting time on books of little merit. I pray you to accept this short sketch as a proof of my respect for your request rather than as worthy your acceptance from one to whom writing is not easy and who tenders you respectful salutations

Mr. Echols

Th. Jefferson

Jefferson's Reading List to Echols

Letter in Jefferson’s own hand recommending reading for acquiring an education, notice the emphasis on history

Oct 16, 2015


  1. Mark

    Great essay! The progressive era is one of my main historical interests. I would have to say though that Scout was wrong about Dewey and the state not wanting her to go through twelve years of unrelenting boredom. How else can it prepare her to work in a factory for fifty years? And the emotional coddling of progressive education is the logical result of the roots of the progressive ideology in anti-reason anti-Enlightenment German philosophers of the 19th century. Emotional coddling in education. Emotional responses ruling over free speech and expression in society. Emotions as the basis of politics. It is all of a kind. Although they would hate that there are always logical results to the ideas one accepts.

    • mylinhshattan

      Thank you for visiting the THL and taking the time to write this thoughtful comment.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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