We learn how important education is to Atticus and his children in the first chapter when Jem announces to Dill that Scout has known how to read since she was a baby. Atticus reads to the children from newspapers and magazines as if they are adults who can understand issues at his level. By the time Scout attends her first day of school she is highly literate, far surpassing the other children in the classroom and frustrating her teacher whose task it is to teach her students according to a predetermined plan.
Jem also learns powerful lessons from his father regarding bravery and cowardice. Early in Mockingbird we learn that Atticus does not approve of guns. He believes that guns do not make men brave and that the children's fascination with guns is unfounded.
To prove his point, he sends Jem to read for Mrs. Dubose who struggles to beat her morphine addiction before she dies. He wants to show his son one shows true bravery "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what" (121). Atticus also role models his sense of bravery by refusing to carry a gun to protect Tom Robinson from angry farmers and refusing to carry a gun to protect himself after Bob Ewell threatens guns. But bravery runs deeper than the decision to carry a gun. Atticus shows bravery when he takes Tom's case despite knowing that his town would turn against him and his children. Jem shows bravery when the children intervene on behalf of Atticus and Jem refuses to leave his father's side during the showdown with farmers at the jailhouse. And, perhaps the biggest lesson Scout must learn is to turn away and show real bravery rather than fight when people antagonize her.
Another important theme of Mockingbird remains the notion of prejudice in all of its forms. Clearly, with the Tom Robinson case, Lee's characters deal with racial prejudice head on. References to black men as "niggers" and "boys" persist throughout the book. Black people occupy the lowest class level of Maycomb society as Maycomb's white population of every class waste no time reinforcing their rigid class rules. The fact that Atticus realizes that he has no chance to win his case defending Tom because Tom is black offers the most explicit indicator of deep-rooted racism. His closing argument in Chapter Twenty clearly outlines Atticus's views on racism. However, Lee also shows us prejudice as it pertains to gender and social class.
Although the entire town subscribes outwardly to traditional gender roles and class distinctions, Aunt Alexandra stands plays the greatest role in reinforcing these notions within the Finch family. Alexandra believes that because the Finch family comes from a long line of landowners who have been the county for generations they deserve greater respect than do other people and they must comport themselves according to their status. She refuses to associate with both black and white citizens alike because they do not fill the same social position. Atticus, on the other hand, urges his children to sympathize with others and to "walk in their skin" before they judge or criticize others.
The most important theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is the book’s exploration of the moral nature of human beings—that is, whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. The novel approaches this question by dramatizing Scout and Jem’s transition from a perspective of childhood innocence, in which they assume that people are good because they have never seen evil, to a more adult perspective, in which they have confronted evil and must incorporate it into their understanding of the world. As a result of this portrayal of the transition from innocence to experience, one of the book’s important subthemes involves the threat that hatred, prejudice, and ignorance pose to the innocent: people such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are not prepared for the evil that they encounter, and, as a result, they are destroyed. Even Jem is victimized to an extent by his discovery of the evil of racism during and after the trial. Whereas Scout is able to maintain her basic faith in human nature despite Tom’s conviction, Jem’s faith in justice and in humanity is badly damaged, and he retreats into a state of disillusionment.
The moral voice of To Kill a Mockingbird is embodied by Atticus Finch, who is virtually unique in the novel in that he has experienced and understood evil without losing his faith in the human capacity for goodness. Atticus understands that, rather than being simply creatures of good or creatures of evil, most people have both good and bad qualities. The important thing is to appreciate the good qualities and understand the bad qualities by treating others with sympathy and trying to see life from their perspective. He tries to teach this ultimate moral lesson to Jem and Scout to show them that it is possible to live with conscience without losing hope or becoming cynical. In this way, Atticus is able to admire Mrs. Dubose’s courage even while deploring her racism. Scout’s progress as a character in the novel is defined by her gradual development toward understanding Atticus’s lessons, culminating when, in the final chapters, Scout at last sees Boo Radley as a human being. Her newfound ability to view the world from his perspective ensures that she will not become jaded as she loses her innocence.