happiness is finding the place where being yourself is exactly what's needed

Sunday, June 12, 2011

why reading fiction isn't stupid

The other day, I was reading this post on the Psychology Today website, which mentions the correlation between reading and empathy. This is another one of those subjects that flits around in my brain like a tripping butterfly, lured to my conscious thoughts from time to time by such readings.

I mentioned in my last post that I believe there is a value in studying literature, but that most schools seem to go about it the wrong way, not giving students the proper opportunity to get anything out of what they're reading.

Students walk out of literature classes thinking, "We read it because it was a classic. We needed to know what happened in it for the test. I didn't really get it, but the teacher seemed to like it."

Teachers go into those lessons thinking, "I really wish the school would spare just a little bit of money for more modern books. Oh well, I guess we make do with what we have."

There's nothing wrong with teaching classic literature, of course. Some of the books I remember liking the most in high school fell onto the list of classic literature (and also onto the list of commonly banned books).

There IS something wrong with teaching a book just because it's a classic, expecting students to read books that barely connect with any modern issues. The novels we think of as classics became classics because, at the time they were written, they made a statement of some type. These books made statements about the times they were written, providing readers with a fresh viewpoint on a CURRENT issue of their society.

So, doesn't this mean that the curriculum should be updated more frequently than once every ten years or so, in order to provide students with easily accessible thinking material and characters they can relate to?

That brings me to the point I was getting at here, what all them smart folk from the above websites have been studying, the link between reading and empathy.

In my younger years, I only very rarely read for pleasure. I did not like most books that I picked up and tried to read, especially the types of sit-com-family children's and teen books that dominated the shelves when I was a child and a teen. I didn't want to read about kids living in the same time as me who had more successes - I already had enough of an inferiority complex from just looking around at the other real kids. I didn't want to read about kids struggling to be popular - I learned very quickly in adolescence that I was too far away from that world (and that there was no logic I could see to determine what "fitting in" actually was).

When I was lucky enough to read a poem, novel, or short story in class that I really connected to, it not only expanded my empathy, it helped to shape who I was.

I once heard - a long way down the grape vine from the source, mind you - that one of the higher ups at my college declared she didn't see what possible value there could be in studying literature.

Having already earned a BA in English Language and Literature at that point, this is an idea I've been shaking around in my brain since. Could there be no point to studying literature?

At certain times I've thought, "Yes, there is no point in studying literature. It should not be taught in schools. Especially novels. Students gain nothing from it. I certainly didn't gain anything from half the crap I had to read in high school and college."

But then I remember the other half. The stuff that wasn't crap. The stories that gave me new philosophies or helped me to discover myself.

Which brings my view to this: There is no point in studying literature for the sake of studying literature. The purpose of this study, as well as any study, is to bring the learner to new understandings. Therefore, the books chosen for students to read (at least in K-12) should be chosen ENTIRELY on their potential to encourage the reader to learn more about the self, the current society, and other people inhabiting the current society.

There are a lot of dusty old boring books out there that aren't as accessible to student readers today as in times past. And there are a lot of shallow teen smut books written by adults who want to make money and have long ago forgotten that teens are perfectly capable of understanding complex ideas and important social issues. It seems like people try to avoid one of these categories by choosing the other.

But there's a whole world of excellent literature out there, new and classic alike, which can help build a bridge from the self to a new understanding. Many of these can be found on lists of frequently banned books.

- - - I've come to realize over the years just how lucky I was in high school that most of the required reading can be found on the ALA list of the top 100 banned/challenged books of 1990-1999 (when I was in school). I'll probably take the next post or two to mention some of these books and what I got out of them as a teenager. Then I'll move onto another topic, honest.

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