Some critics feel that Harper Lee is making a social comment about education in Chapter 2 of To Kill a Mockingbird. How is the school system mocked by the author in this chapter?
Lee pokes gentle fun at the school system in this chapter by making clear Scout’s complete bewilderment on her very first day of attendance. The portrayal of her experiences highlights the disconnect between the teacher, Miss Caroline, and her young pupils. Miss Caroline is quite young herself, fresh from college training and full of bright ideas about teaching – Jem explains, for example, that she has absorbed the theories of educational reformer John Dewey – but she is not very successful in the practical application of her ideas. First of all she bores the class by reading them a fanciful story about anthropomorphic animals. As Scout observes:
Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.
Miss Caroline’s teaching materials and approach, then, do not seem very suitable for the kind of class she is teaching. It becomes plain that she has little understanding of the social background of her pupils. This is further emphasized a little later when Scout tries vainly to explain the circumstances of Walter Cunningham’s poverty.
The main issue that arises in the course of the day, however, is Scout’s reading. Miss Caroline is both astonished and displeased to find that Scout is ‘literate’, as she has learned the rudiments of reading – and more – at home, and says that Scout’s home-learning interferes with the school system. However, it seems more the case that the school is interfering with Scout’s reading at home. Scout’s home learning actually appears more advanced than the system at school. As so often in the book, the disparity between the experiences of children and the ideas imposed on them by grown-ups, makes for a good deal of humour.