Will More Nonfiction Reading in School Lead to a Lack of Empathy?
Many schools in the United States are in the middle of adopting the Common Core, part of President Obama’s new education reform. This reform has hit English literature courses particularly hard because it shifts the focus from literature to nonfiction. While nonfiction texts that meet the standards can be read in any class, from science to history, and there is still a place for literature in the curriculum, English teachers are still being asked to teach more nonfiction than they are used to.
Why did the standards change reading requirements so drastically? According to the leading architect of the Common Core Standards Initiative and president of the College Board, David Coleman, “So many kids, often as many as 50 percent, graduate high school … demonstrably not ready for the demands of a first-year college course or job-training program.” The truth of the matter is that reading nonfiction goes a long way toward improving student test scores and, therefore, increases readiness for college and careers.
Of course, this seems like a great thing. Improving test scores while making sure kids are ready for their post-high school endeavors? Win-win. However, what happens to students when fiction is taken out of the curriculum? What happens to those books like “The Catcher in the Rye” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and how will the students be affected for not reading them?
Most often, books such as these are the ones that people pass on to their friends and family members, saying that these books changed their lives. Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, and Maja Djikic set out to prove how true the claim that a book changed someone’s life truly was. They collected participants and gave them all personality tests. Then, they gave some of the participants the short story “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Anton Chekhov and they gave the others a version of the story rewritten in a nonfiction style. Following that, they gave the participants the personality test again.
The results were remarkable. Each participant who read the fiction story experienced a slight change in his or her personality, and each participant changed in a unique way. According to Oatley, this is because fiction is a form of meditation that allows each individual to open his or her mind in a unique way:
Reading narrative fiction (and potentially narrative non-fiction such as memoirs as well) is like a form of meditation, Oatley says, because it opens you up to emptying your mind of real-life concerns in favour of focusing on a fictional world.
“You go sit somewhere quietly, or you go lie on a couch, or go to bed, you put aside your own concerns and now you take on the concerns of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, or whoever it happens to be. So you then start to experience what life was like from within a different mind.”
That experience, although guided by the story, is entirely individual, Oatley says, which is why it affects everyone differently. This kind of individual response to a book is something most readers have experienced at some point, whether by crying over certain circumstances or applying a character’s lesson to their own life.
As people are experiencing fiction in their own ways, they are practicing empathy. The fiction they read allows them to experience life as someone else, or in a different time and place, and allows them to be more empathetic in their real lives. As a teacher, I want my students to be productive members of society who are prepared for life after high school, but I also want them to be good citizens who will help someone in need. I want them to be able to think about their actions and how they affect the world around them and then make choices that benefit themselves, but also benefit the greater good. If we take fiction out of the curriculum, there is a danger that this will not happen. Teaching fiction is vital to creating well-rounded young adults, and is also necessary in practicing empathy.
Fortunately, the Common Core does still leave room for fiction, and many English teachers are using nonfiction articles that relate to the fiction they already teach in order to meet the increased requirement for nonfiction and to boost interest in the novels by connecting them to students’ lives. I just hope that fiction never gets taken out of the curriculum entirely. Something that drastic might have many consequences beyond just losing some good stories.
Photo Credit: Ian Wilson