The Illiteracy of the American Population in the 1930s through “To Kill a Mockingbird”

In 2018, the US ranks 14th worldwide in overall education performance (www.masterandmore.com). This is a significant improvement from where we stood back in the early 1900s, particularly in the south. In the 1930s, 3.8% of white Americans, and 19.7% of black Americans from the south could not read or write in any language (NBER.org). Harper Lee elucidates the illiteracy of the American population in the 1930s through her famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout this story, Lee highlights illiteracy in small town Maycomb, Alabama, and its wide-reaching effect on the attitudes and relationships in the community. Early on in the story, it is apparent that education in the town of Maycomb is not held in high regard. If anything it is viewed as unimportant, and actions are taken only because they have to be, not because people believe in them. For one thing, the school board does nothing to keep the Ewells educated whatsoever. “He’s one of the Ewells, ma’am, Whole school’s full of ‘em. They come first day every year and then leave. The truant lady gets ’em here ‘cause she threatens ’em with the sheriff, but she’s give up tryin’ to hold ‘em. She reckons she’s carried out the law just gettin‘ their names on the roll and runnin’ ‘em here the first day.” (Lee, p. 36).

Lee illustrates the town’s viewpoint on education in this scene by showing how the school board does not even try to give the Ewell children an education; instead, they do just enough to get by the law. Furthermore, when Miss Caroline finds out that Jean Louise Finch, who goes by Scout, is already literate, she scolds her, letting her know that her father should not teach her. Miss Caroline wants her students to learn, but she falters when they think for themselves. So while Scout loves to learn, school turned out to be a big disappointment for her. Lee used numerous examples in the book to show how education was not a priority. For instance, Bob Ewell is called as a witness of a court case later in the book. When asked if he was ambidextrous, he responded with “I most positively am not, I can use one hand good as the other.” His lack of education, and that of the entire Ewell family, is evident throughout the book and is a primary reason for the family being viewed as the lowliest white family in the town.

Although Lee sets the tone for Maycomb’s education as not being important, Lee also describes the education system as bias. It is already clear how racist the town is, but a large reason for this is the education. Maycomb has a social hierarchy where the white men are on top. If the schools teach the same thing repeatedly for years then the future generations will be the same way. However, Scout and Jem see things differently because of Atticus. Atticus said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Lee, p. 39). Atticus has always believed in equality and that is why he defended Tom Robinson, though most of the people in the book do not feel the same way.

There was even one time on the playground at the school where “Cecil Jacobs announced that Scout Finch’s daddy defended negros.” (Lee, p. 99). Even most of the children feel this way because that is how they are being raised, and they do not have anyone in their lives like Atticus to teach them differently. Therefore, there is another racist generation on the rise in Maycomb. Furthermore, Bob Ewell (though not educated), is teaching his children the ways of which he is living currently, and there is a very good chance that they would grow up and be just like their malevolent father. To summarize, the author draws very clear conclusions about the literacy of the 1930s. Lee writes in her book To Kill a Mockingbird, of the illiteracy of the town Maycomb Alabama, and reflects upon all of the southern United States. Through her story, Harper Lee reflects the attitudes and relationships of the people from Maycomb, Alabama, and illustrates how important literacy truly is.

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