How is the concept of education- formal and informal woven into Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee seems to hold a particular disdain for formal theories of education and those involved with them. On the other hand, the children of Atticus Finch receive a bountiful informal education from their interaction with their father and neighbors, as well as the townspeople, whom they encounter particularly during the Tom Robinson trial. 

  • Formal Education

Formal, or classroom-based, education has many flaws in it, and Harper Lee points to a few:

In the early chapters of her novel, Lee satirizes the theories of John Dewey when Jem explains to his little sister Scout that Miss Caroline is teaching according to the Dewey Decimal System (a system of categorizing books in a library). This consists of Miss Caroline's displaying before the children certain "sight" words. 
Further, Lee pokes fun of the strict adherence Miss Caroline gives to the educational practices she has been taught. For, when she discovers that Scout can already read from the newspaper and the first grade text, My First Reader, she is appalled, rather than impressed as she should be.

Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading. 

Further in the narrative, Lee points to the hypocrisy of such teachers as Miss Gates, who teaches the children about Nazism and its persecution of the Jews, but she herself displays racial hatred when she is overheard coming out of the courthouse saying, "...it's time somebody taught 'em [the African-Americans] a lesson, they're gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing is they think they can marry us."

Later in the novel, as Atticus makes his closing argument in the Tom Robinson trial in which he argues that every court of justice should operate under the premise that under the law all men are equal, whereas that is not necessarily the case otherwise. He alludes to education as an exception:

The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious--because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe....

  • Informal Education

Informal education, or learning that occurs outside the classroom. provides Scout and Jem a wealth of knowledge and experience:

Certainly, the children learn much from their father and Calpurnia. Scout learns to read from sitting on her father's lap in the evenings as he peruses the Mobile Register and from Calpurnia she learns handwriting. Of course, there are many life-lessons that the children learn from their experiences around Miss Maudie, Mrs. Dubose, Boo Radley, and others. In addition, they receive instruction from Atticus and Miss Maudie both.

For instance, Atticus teaches Scout to put herself in the place of others--"walk around in their skin"--in order to better understand people. He also teaches by example, displaying noble behavior in his encounter with the reprobate Bob Ewell who spits in his face as well as chivalrous behavior before Mrs. Dubose and her venomous insults. At all times he is patient and thoughtful, respecting the rights of others. When the children want to violate the privacy of Boo Radley, Atticus reprimands them. Above all, he teaches his children about Christian charity as he sets an example for them of kindness to the insulting Mrs. Dubose because he understands that she is a morphine addict and dying. He is also fair and considerate to everyone from Mr. Cunningham to the Ewells and poor Tom Robinson and to Helen, his wife, after Tom is killed.
Certainly, Atticus's example to his children imparts to them more valuable lessons than any found in textbooks. 

Other people, too, teach the Finch children. Miss Maudie provides the children much wisdom on human nature as does Mr. Dolphus Raymond. The negative experiences with Miss Stephanie Crawford and Mrs. Dubose impart knowledge to the children, as well, Indeed, their experiences of the kindness of Boo Radley and their friendship with the lonely and sensitive Dill Harris are also lessons that last a lifetime.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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