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Literary fiction, empathy, and reading reality

Researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh, NY Times.
Researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh, NY Times.

favicon I’m a bit late to this party, but I figured I would share some of my thoughts.

Last week, the New York Times published “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” in which reporter Pam Belluck summarized a new study that concludes that reading literary fiction, as opposed to nonfiction or popular fiction, results in greater empathy.

The article set off a bit of a brouhaha, particularly among English teachers who like fiction.

There’s nothing too new about this research. Psychologists Emanuele Castano and doctoral candidate David Comer Kidd have studied the connection between reading and empathy for years and have published at least five studies. Others are investigating this field, too.

And it’s sort of a no-brainer that reading gets us to construct new worlds, to live in another person’s shoes, and to build empathy by practicing with fictional characters.

So what’s the big fuss? Why is my Twitter all a-twitter with tweets like this?

The answer, of course, is simple: English teachers are going crazy about Common Core.

In short, many English teachers — especially those who love to teach literature and independent reading — are worried that the Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts means the end of all fiction. Pretty soon, they worry, there won’t be To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet and Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby.

Even though David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards, has said repeatedly that the increase in nonfiction should come in social studies, Science, and Math classes, many English teachers do not believe him.

I can see why. Mr. Coleman sometimes comes across as smarmy.

But the strong (and sometimes vitriolic) response is not helpful for three reasons:

1. There’s nothing wrong with English teachers adding a little nonfiction to their syllabi.
I’d like my students to be able to read a nonfiction piece on their own. So would most college professors and employers. AP English Language, a popular 11th grade course, is all about nonfiction. Why not start earlier?

2. Teaching literary fiction is not the same as students reading literary fiction.
Too many teachers, in the name of rigor and literary fiction, assign texts that overmatch their students. Rather than The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, they teach A Separate Peace. Midway through, those same teachers lament that students aren’t completing the reading homework, but because the text is so rich and intricate, teachers stick with the dance of fake teaching the book and complain that their students are fake reading it.  

2. Educational either-or debates are not moving the discourse.
Why must we always discuss issues like we’re participating in a debate? Maybe we like winning, or maybe we get the yes-or-no tendency from our politicians. Whatever the reason, railing against the Common Core because it devalues fiction — even if that assertion is true — is not an argument with enough heft to counteract the 46 states that have adopted the standards.

The debate does not have to be this stark. Despite what Diane Ravitch may suggest, you don’t have to choose between raising academic achievement and building empathy, one or the other. Good teaching can and should fulfill both goals.

The teaching of literary fiction will continue in the Common Core era, and even if nonfiction gets more attention for a while, that does not mean that students across the country will all of a sudden not be able to relate to others and do nice things for each other and be kind. favicon


  1. Tony

    Mark – always such the diplomat. I agree with you, as usual, but it comes down to what common core will mean from one classroom, school, district, to the next. Here is a scenario that makes me a bit nervous:
    1. The aspect of common core that is emphasized (i.e. tested) is the notion of close reading
    2. Close reading, as it is generally understood and as it has been articulated by Common Core text book publishers, is that all one needs to make meaning of the text exists within the four corners of the page.
    3. Literary fiction asks readers to rely more on inference, schema, and background knowledge to understand it. Non-fiction works, and popular fiction pieces, require less of these skills – they tend to make a greater effort to include all one needs for comprehension within the text itself.
    4. Like what occurred under NCLB, what tests test will trump much of the life skills and authentic learning that students really need. Stuff that literature offers, and that I think we might need MORE of in a world where we are wed to cell phone screens, not less.

    As for Coleman – any claims about this not impacting ELA’s teaching of fiction sound new to me – and like serious back tracking, because this was not the message at this time last year.

    Common core makes teachers nervous for good reason – but it also has promising aspects, such as holding schools that have not had high standards to greater ones and providing them with better models and supports to reach those standards. Of course, as long as the teachers in those schools are not genuinely invested or have been poorly prepared, then those standards may be tough to meet.

    Its a brave new world. Pun intended.

    • Mark Isero

      Hey Tony! Funny that you thought I was being diplomatic. I was worried that I needed to tone down my strident remarks!

      I agree with you on #1, #2, and part of #4.

      Yesterday I went to a conference session where participants could try out what it’ll feel like to take the new tests. My first impression: They seem very similar to the old tests, except (a) they’re harder, (b) you actually have to read the passages, (c) there’s more nonfiction (no poetry or workplace documents).

      As for Coleman, two things: (1) He’s not campaigning for the Common Core anymore, partly because he comes off as smarmy and partly because he’s focusing more on his new job, (2) He has made sure to backtrack a bit from what he said last year.

Please share your brilliant insights!