My 14 year old son recently read To Kill a Mockingbird. At first, he found it difficult to grasp the alien background, language and atmosphere of 1930s Alabama. But by the time he’s done it, he’s already in that heady state of contemplation that great art inspires. He wanted to (and believe me, it’s not something that happens every day) talk about it: talk about the big themes of the book, including racism, poverty, mob justice and moral courage, and the art of writing.
In the fullest sense, a book like this is an education, which is why it has long been a classroom favorite in the English-speaking world. But in the U.S. schools are becoming increasingly nervous about teaching it. A Nevada school board just pulled To Kill a Mockingbird from its ninth-grade curriculum, citing “some teachers may be reluctant to guide students through it.”
The text is littered with N words, and even the great hero Atticus Finch was too racist by today’s standards. The board explained that it was a “difficult book” that asked “tough questions”.
“Exactly what to teach it!” I heard you cry and you were not wrong. What better place to examine difficult things than in the classroom? Simply turning to any work of art that might raise “hard questions” is extremely debilitating — and an affront to the intelligence of teachers and students. This amounts to the deprivation of young people—both culturally and historically.
As my son observed, racist language is part of the terrible power of this book. “It’s like a time machine,” he said. “It gets you back there and gives you the real vibe of how people think and talk.”
Of course, there is also a vibe to the way we think and speak today.
Defending a literary canon from behind the keyboard is easy. But I don’t want to be the kid who has to read the N-word aloud in class; nor the teacher who has to justify it to the board.
Let’s have a post-Covid train boom
One of the many conundrums created by the pandemic is that train travel has become more enjoyable — but only because no one is doing it. Last year, passenger numbers fell to the lowest level since 1872, when trains were still powered by steam. Even now, they’re stuck at about half their pre-pandemic levels, and while a quarter of train services are still not running, it’s still pretty easy to get a seat.
The government – which had to pay the cost of running half-empty trains and has now cancelled the rail franchise – hopes to lure commuters back to trains with the promise of free bacon rolls. It is building a rewards system that will allow passengers to claim perks such as free snacks, hot drinks and audiobooks, as well as discounted theatre tickets.
I’m not sure if that will work. Even before the pandemic, passenger numbers were faltering — not because of a lack of perks, but because of basic comforts. In 2018, British commuters spent about five times as much on train fares as their European counterparts. At such a high cost, they enjoy unreliable, overcrowded service and carriages that, with their hard, oddly angled seats and stark white lighting, increasingly resemble interrogation rooms.
Forget about free coffee bars: cut prices, extend trains, organize timetables and dim the lights.