What is Old is New Again – Lessons from To Kill a Mockingbird

Categories: child rights, human centred design, User Centred

I watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” again recently. As most of you know, Harper Lee wrote the novel, and the 1962 Academy Award–winning movie features Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer who defends a black man accused of the rape of a white girl. There are so many important themes in this movie relevant to social justice, conflict, the rule of law, racism, prejudice, courage etc.

What intrigued me this time was that the movie is narrated from the perspective of a child – Scout, Atticus’ six-year old daughter. Child narration is common for children’s literature but not so popular for books written for adult audiences. I had forgotten this feature of the movie.

Through Scout’s eyes we observe the events in the story including the trial of Tom Robinson and the mystery of neighbour Boo Radley. Scout and her brother are exposed to racial prejudice, hatred, poverty and “otherness” and with the guidance of their wise father, learn hard life lessons. Scout’s perspective directly shifts some of the key events. When a posse of local men converge on the local jail hoping to exact their own justice on Tom Robinson, it is Scout who de-escalates a potentially violent incident by expressing her innocent 6 year old view of the situation (calling out Mr. Cunningham, a former client of Atticus).

Embedding a child’s perception into the film may create a significant source of empathy, compassion and increased understanding (Note 1). That was certainly its effect on me.

An important theme in To Kill a Mockingbird is the insight that results from perspective-taking. In the words of Atticus:

“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.”

The BC Family Justice Innovation Lab uses human-centred design which starts with the perspectives of those for whom the system is meant to serve. Its Youth Voices initiative focuses on the perspective of young people who have experienced their parents’ separation or divorce. The lab team is currently prototyping tools to enhance the voices of these children.

In our work we have discovered how profound and even transformational it is to begin with exploring the experience of the people we are trying to serve, and to engage directly with this group throughout the human-centred design process. We described our insights in earlier posts here and here.

Human-centred design builds on a solid foundation. What is old is new again.

Note 1: Magnhild Haugen, “The Child’s Perspective in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Kite Runner”, ENG-3983 Master’s thesis in English Literature and Education, 40 ECTS, Spring 2018; accessed at https://munin.uit.no/handle/10037/13723 on June 15, 2019. “Some scholars have studied how fiction narrated by children in difficult situations has might promote empathetic reflections and understanding in the reader. Robyn Wilkinson, Annie Gagiano and Charles M. Tatum all acknowledge the importance of the child perspectives in novels about trauma and abuse and acknowledges the voice of the child as influential and important in such narratives. Wilkinson notes how “the voice of the child, though limited in terms of knowledge, experience and understanding, can offer an effective mode for the critique of social and political issues, because of its straight-forward and unselfconscious nature”.” (at pages 6-7)