Describe Lee's use of humor as Jem tries to explain Miss Caroline's teaching theories to Scout.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first two chapters of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird contain masterfully controlled humor beginning with Miss Caroline's ironic instructions to Scout to inform her father not to teach her any more as it would interfere with Scout's learning because he does not know how to teach.

When Scout informs Jem of the incidents of her day, Jem says,

"I'm just trying to tell you the new way they're teachin' the first grade, stubborn.  It's the Dewey Decimal System."

Of course Jem's malaproprism is humorous of itself.  For, by alluding to the Dewey Decimal System, Jem has mistakenly confused the proprietary system of classification for public libraries begun by Melvil Dewey with the theories of the American philosopher and the foremost educator of his day, John Dewey.  And, since John Dewey believed that students should be involved in real life tasks and challenges, it is also humorous that Miss Caroline accuses Scout's father of not knowing how to teach when it is really Atticus, not Miss Caroline, who follows the precepts of Dewey's idea of education as he has Scout reading the Mobile Register, an action that is a real life task, while it is Miss Caroline who reads the imaginative story about personified cats that has no relationship to real life at all to children "who have picked cotton and fed hogs from the time they could walk," as Scout notes.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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