The most I ever learned in college was not from a professor. I’m not referring to life lessons, or extra-curricular information, but specifically to one US Intellectual History class. The professor, well-respected and well-published, provided the spark, the facts, and the direction, but the actual learning came from a motley study group made up of a very-Republican lacrosse player, a brilliant Southern belle, an angsty body-building Yankee libertarian, and me. How we came together I don’t remember, but I am forever grateful for their diverse perspectives and thoughtful intelligence.
Lectures happened MWF at 9 a.m., an early hour at a university noted for its nightlife. We set multiple alarms to ensure that we didn’t miss a bit of our crazy-haired professor’s insight. When exam time came, we picked up pizza and hunkered down in one of our crusty apartments, ready to cram. We didn’t review facts; we just tried to figure out what questions he would ask us.
We didn’t obsess about the details, because our professor didn’t. He wanted us to understand the big picture. We didn’t have study guides or practice tests: we just were supposed to make sense of the thought movements that had influenced the United States, and there were endless ways to consider the topic. As we tried to determine what mattered, we bickered, disagreeing about what we might face on the test. We couldn’t discount anyone’s opinion, because we just didn’t know. We stayed up late, covering the waterfront. In the early hours we parted, to meet again after we had closed our bluebooks and signed the honor pledge, rushing out of the creaky lecture hall to high-five each other if we had guessed the questions correctly or, even better, if we thought we had known the answers. We were excited about the material. We wanted each other to succeed. And, as we attempted to understand our complicated country in one short undergraduate semester, we didn’t realize what a gift our different perspectives gave us.
On August 4th, the Christ Church Cathedral congregation will gather to discuss Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean Thompson will provide us with questions to explore in groups. It will be a conversation, most certainly not a test. But what if we prepared as if it were? What if we thought about this book from the perspective of those most different from us: what questions would they ask? When we meet to discuss this novel, we will gather across generations. We will gather across political affiliations. Across gender lines, economic lines, and most pertinent to this book, racial lines. But we will gather with the intent of each of us coming away with the deepest understanding possible.
There is a world of intellectual, social, and political history packed in this novel. There is a reason that we are still discussing it 59 years after its publication, a reason that it won the Pulitzer Prize, that the movie won multiple Academy Awards, that Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation for the theater is the top-grossing Broadway play to-date,* and that over a dozen books have been published about Harper Lee and her one story. There is a reason that it is as controversial as it is beloved.
We don’t know what questions the Dean will ask us. But more important than those questions is the preparation we bring to the discussion. Consider the story from your experience. Consider it from the point of view of a Republican lacrosse player, a brilliant Southern belle or a New England libertarian. As Atticus says, climb into someone else’s skin and consider things from that point of view. Because even though there isn’t a test, helping each other to understand the material makes all the difference.
Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.