Monday, November 7, 2016

Can Fiction Save Democracy?

By many accounts this is the most contentious presidential election ever. There seems to be genuine fear that our democratic system of government, built on the ideals of the rule of law, an honorable and peaceful political process, and the ability of elected leaders to compromise in the face of difficult decisions, has devolved into warring camps on constant attack. These camps then use a variety of media outlets, which often seem more like political arms of the dueling parties rather than journalists bent on informing the public, to push their point of view down our throats.

How are teachers to respond to this? Our educational system was built on the ideal that a thriving democracy depended on an informed, educated citizenry. What is our responsibility as teachers in the face of the growing polarization of the parties and the overwhelming amount of propaganda parading as information bombarding our students?

Some educators are arguing that what we need is to help children develop news literacy. The News Literacy Project defines news literacy as the ability to discern between reporting that seeks to present information fairly, accurately and contextually from reporting that is rooted in opinion, rumor and disinformation. You can learn more about the news literacy approach from The News Literacy Project web site and the Center for News Literacy, both of which are developing lesson plan ideas for teachers.

News literacy is a worthy and necessary goal, of course, and it has the advantage of slipping nicely into place alongside the Common Core State Standards' call for the reading of more nonfiction text in school and for the critical analysis of that text. But I would like to focus on one way we can address the threat to democracy that may not be as obvious, and that seems to be downplayed in the Common Core, but is nonetheless vital if our country is to survive. I want to suggest that reading fiction is the best hope for our current and future democracy.

Why fiction? I believe that our current state of political affairs is the result of an increasing inability to see another person's point of view as legitimate. I am talking here about empathy. The ability as the songwriter Joe South put it, to "walk a mile" in the other guy's shoes. Our increasing isolation as a country, the diminution of community spirit and the increase in the politics of me, has sneaked up on us. It is in part the result of technological innovation including the automobile, the television, and the internet.

It is ironic that the internet, with its promise of opening the world of knowledge to us, has instead become an echo chamber where we only really hear the voices that agree with us. The victim of this isolation has been our ability to empathize with others. This growing isolation is one way to explain the vitriol directed at immigrants, the increased racial segregation 60 years after Brown v. The Board of Education, and the stark division between red states and blue states. Other factors are at play of course, but empathy is one that we can address in school.

It is well documented that fiction helps individuals develop empathy (Mar, Oatley & Peterson, 2009). Several studies have shown that reading literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction or formulaic fiction, helps develop what researchers call Theory of Mind. According to Kidd and Castano (2013) "Theory of Mind is the ability to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (page 337). Kidd and Castano found that reading literary fiction helped readers develop Theory of Mind. A study by Vezzali, et al. (2014) found that reading Harry Potter books (with their depiction of prejudice against Muggles) reduced racist attitudes of high school students. Vezzali says that when you read fiction, you don't just learn a new way of interacting, you actually put yourself in the place of the character.

And that is what we need to be doing at this critical time in our history - putting ourselves in the other guy's place. One of the first great, long novels I ever read was The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. This book helped me develop an understanding of people that were far out of my own suburban Philadelphia experience, but who I could see were real, hard-working, very American people trying to make a go of it in a world that was conspiring against them. The words of that heroic Everyman of the novel, Tom Joad, resonate in my ears to this day. 

And then, in the height of the Civil Rights movement, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. After reading that book, I wanted to become a lawyer. I wanted to right wrongs. I wanted to be a better person than I was. Atticus Finch is still an important model for me in trying to be a good person and a good father. In college, I read Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. I was and still am a huge baseball fan and here was a book that used baseball as the backdrop for a very human story of an unlikely friendship between an educated, erudite star pitcher and a slow-witted, uneducated, third-string catcher. That book opened my eyes to the basic humanity in us all, no matter how limited or humble our background, how unhappy our circumstance, or how limited our prospects.

And that is just three books for me. In the classroom, I have seen students transformed by the insights they found in characters in picture books like The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, or Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting; by novels like The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson; Freak the Mighty, by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; The Man Without a Face, by Isabelle Holland and so many, many more.

So the answer to what is ailing the country is right there on the shelves of our classroom library - good fiction. Now the job remains to make sure we connect the kids with these books and that that connection leads to a life of reading that fiction and nurturing that empathetic soul that resides in us all. Only by seeing the other person as one with us in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can our ideal of a democratic nation survive.

So, I ask you to go out and vote for the candidate you think best represents the kind of empathy that is the American ideal and then come home, pour yourself a glass of wine, and open a good book.

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