Tell me a story

There is a rush to teach children subjects that will enable them to pass standardized tests, study with rigor and do well in the world. The emphasis on success has been to add more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) courses. Many of us in education are reading and hearing that the sciences and mathematics are where jobs lie, where wealth and upward mobility are to be found. Thus we hear that our teachers and our professors, our schools and even our universities, would do well to emphasize these subjects. And while standardized tests are not yet used to measure abilities in science, I am sure this lack will soon be rectified by the folks who bring you standardized tests of reading and math. Even in public school, English teachers are being advised to focus on nonfiction reading versus fiction or poetry. History, literature, music, the arts, psychology and sociology are rarely considered as ways to prepare “successful” students, teachers, lawyers or doctors for their professions.

As a former teacher of literature in high schools and colleges I find this development not only disheartening, I find it frightening. I have always believed that reading novels and stories and poetry is what brings out and challenges the very humanity in us, calling on our ability to empathize. In the experience of losing ourselves in the lives of others, be it in a short story by Raymond Carver, a poem by Yusef Koumanyaka or a young adult novel by Sharon Flake, we “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings” as science writer, Annie Murphy Paul wrote in her column on March 18 in the New York Times called Your Brain on Fiction.  The message of her column is that neuroscientists have been able to observe the effect of reading novels on the way people function. In a study conducted from Canada, it was have found that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. “The study notes that “Fiction…is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. “

What does it mean, then, that we are rapidly eliminating literature and novel reading from our curricular requirements? Humanities, the study of literature, languages, history, philosophy and the arts, gets its name because such study engages us in the unique qualities that make us human. If we lose this area of engagement with our students, as we are doing cut by cut to our core curriculums, we are losing those subjects that we most need in a world that is so complex and globally intimate. Our children need the ability to “weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect” in the realms of work and neighborhood, in their greetings and exchanges at the supermarket, the post office, with the online computer assistant, the man who hires them, the woman who is their doctor.  

Even more than the useful and productive effects of empathy that come from story and narrative, are the multi perspective and open mind that taps into benevolence, lack of judgment, a willingness to withhold first perceptions, to wait and listen. The work of reading a long and engrossing story, written at another time in another place from our hometown, or our street provides us with an understanding of what we don’t know from first glance, from rumor, from what we have been told about an individual before us. We learn to slow down, and to respect the surprise and unexpected action, feeling, thought of a character we have been following for two hundred pages. Someone once told me that Anna Karenina told her all she needed to know about psychology.  This person was a psychologist and counselor who also respected what science had to say, what technology had to offer. Yet in this one novel she found stunning insight and an understanding that the way the human soul works out his or her time on this earth is limitless.

We learn such empathy not only through novels or printed stories, but also through oral stories, spoken at town counsel meetings or in waiting rooms, or at conferences, Additionally, we learn to listen to one human voice describing what happened. If we have read and learned to enter the lives of others then, won’t we become excellent at listening? And won’t this lead to an ever unfolding advancement in our human condition? From Ted Talks to folk tales, from Jane Eyre to Mad Men, we learn by reading, watching and understanding the human predicament. If we deny students the chance to see the world and history from multiple perspectives, we deny them a chance to participate fully in the world.

 In my most cynical moments, in my most terrified time, I wonder if the engineers of education these days do not want us nor our children to think so openly and engage with empathy. I wonder if there isn’t a hidden desire, with the emphasis on rigor, to deny to our students the wildness that comes with creativity, revelation and learning. Or perhaps, in the name of programmed instruction or prescribed curriculum, the idea is to deny such rich interaction with literature to poor children, while those who go to private schools, or Ivy League colleges, or are tracked into IB courses or AP classes receive the full panoply of learning. Perhaps the elimination of the arts from our schools is a way of discouraging divergent and critical thinking at the deepest level.. And if this is so, is it done to encourage a compliant workforce for service and menial jobs? This paranoid thinking is not like me. Yet it is there.

Finally, what we are really missing when we lose fiction, visual art and rich historical understanding is the chance for interdisciplinary studies. By combining science and story, math and drawing, theater and engineering, so much more can happen for kids, for adults, and for expanding the humanity that is in all of us. This is a big task for fiction. Yet it can be accomplished. If empathy becomes an educational goal, and our students learn to enter the stories of those in front of them, behind them, perhaps, we can change the trajectory of violence we have witnessed these long years.

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Julie Landsman's picture
Julie Landsman

Julie Landsman, author of A White Teacher Talks About Race, taught in the Minneapolis public schools for 25 years.