Common Core Literature

Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding of Others

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Megan Schmidt wrote in Discover magazine about the value of reading fiction. Although written a year ago, this article is timely because it decisively refutes one of the central tenets of the Common Core, which encourages teachers to spend increasing amounts of time on “informational text” while decreasing time for literature.

She began:

Would the world be a better place if people read more books?

Of course, asserting that reading can fix the world’s problems would be naive at best. But it could help make it a more empathetic place. And a growing body of research has found that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different from themselves.

That’s because literary fiction is essentially an exploration of the human experience, says Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.

“Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to,” says Oatley. “[With] someone who you’re married to … or a close friend, you can actually get to know them. Reading fiction enables you to sample across a much wider range of possible people and come to understand something about the differences among them.”

Perspectives on Empathy

Psychologists have found that empathy is innate, as even babies show it. And while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, most people become more-so with age. Beyond that, some research indicates that if you’re motivated to become more empathetic, you probably can. Although there are many ways to cultivate empathy, they largely involve practicing positive social behaviors, like getting to know others, putting yourself in their shoes and challenging one’s own biases. And stories — fictional ones in particular — offer another way to step outside of oneself.

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and immigrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the real world

Sometimes, empathy is described as the glue that holds society together. Without it, humankind probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. Our ancestors depended on acts of caring for survival — such as sharing resources, help with healing the sick, and protection from predators. And we’ll probably continue needing empathy to move forward. Yet, at this particular moment in history,it can feel like empathy is on shaky ground.

From this perspective, it seems that our current test-driven regime and neglect of literature are promoting the wrong values. Selfishness, competitiveness, hyper-individualism, lack of empathy.”

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