Year 9 English: Teaching Tolerance, Empathy and Acceptance Through Classic Texts

When I talk to my parents’ generation about their study of literature in secondary school and the texts they remember, many of them respond that they most appreciated studying classic texts by authors such as William Shakespeare and Harper Lee. When I ask members of my own generation, the same question, they invariably answer with the same author’s names. It fills me with pride that the tradition continues in the Year 9 English Course at St Catherine’s, where William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird still feature.

At a time when much of the discussion in education focuses on technology and the necessity to prepare our students for the future, it is also necessary to look to the past and what must be retained. The values of tolerance, empathy and acceptance, which feature prominantly in these texts, are as relevant now as they were in my parents’ generation and as they will be for generations to come.

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Antonio, a 16th Century merchant who must default on a loan given to him by a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. After suffering years of discrimination at the hands of Christians, Shylock sees the default as an opportunity to literally take a ‘pound of flesh’ from one of his abusers. While initially read as a villain, it is Shylock who represents the consequences of discrimination and reminds the reader that we must learn from the mistakes of the past. Through his speech ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ Shylock articulates the values of tolerance and equality. While the context is no longer relevant today, the values of tolerance, empathy and acceptance remain as pertinent as ever.

Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird details the unjust trial of an African American man in the Southern States of America during the Great Depression, through the innocent eyes of 6 year-old Scout Finch. Through Scout’s narration, the reader experiences a loss of innocence with her as we are exposed to the distressing reality of racism that was rife in these societies. Once again, the context differs, but the relevance of the lessons learned remains. Through the study of this novel students, along with Scout, learn that ‘There are only one kind of folks. Folks.’ They are encouraged to treat individuals fairly and without prejudice. Through Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, Lee shows students the importance of empathy and encourages them to ‘climb inside’ the skin of others and ‘walk around in it’.

As teachers and students of Literature, we are constantly given the opportunity to study human experience and learn from the way others view the world. It is through this examination that we ourselves shape, adapt and refine what matters to us. The study of these classic texts provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationships of individuals and their societies with the clarity that distance and time provides. While societies are constantly advancing and changing, the need to show tolerance, empathy and acceptance to others remains fixed.

Mrs Anna McKenzie, English Teacher