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Rhyme and Reason Have Left the Building: A Plea on Behalf of Reading Literary Fiction


Last night in the Children’s Lit class I teach at the community college, I was covering five benefits of reading literary fiction. The benefits included cultivating childlike wonder, expanding perspectives, improving Theory of Mind, developing empathy, and providing a healthy escape from daily pressures. But we camped out on the 3rd and 4th.

I presented research from a few scholarly articles that describes how reading literary fiction in such a way that you allow yourself to be transported into the story activates the same neurological webs as actual life experiences. Reading literary fiction (complex, well-crafted, character-driven fiction) cultivates emotional intelligence, empathy, the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives and sympathize with multiple points of view.

Let me say that again: Reading literary fiction in such a way that we get “lost in the story” changes our brains and wires us to be more understanding, empathetic, expansive human beings. It causes the reader to become more in tune with the feelings and ideas of other people, more responsive, more loving.

I think maybe these are things we need in our society, don’t you? I think these are things that we need to actively cultivate in the upcoming generation of children and teens if we want them to behave better than we do, with all our middle-aged political Facebook rants and our polarized opinions and rigid posturing.

I tossed in an aside during class because many of my students are education majors. I mentioned that the Common Core curriculum being adopted all over the country has made a deliberate choice to remove fiction as an emphasis in high school, in favor of nonfiction texts. I said my opinion is that this is a terrible mistake.

A student in the class, who is a mother of three, raised her hand. She said that just last week her son’s school held a meeting for parents of those about to enter the 9th grade. The presenter asked the parents, “How many of you read fiction stories as part of your job and get paid for it?” No one raised their hand. “See?” he said, “what you read are reports and informative articles, manuals, and other types of nonfiction writing. So that’s what we need to have our students reading if we want to prepare them for college and their future careers. Not stories.”

Well.

I launched into my own middle-aged rant at that point. That statement, I said, made by that presenter represents what I believe to be a tragically flawed philosophy of why we have education. It operates on the assumption that we do school in order to prepare for college. We do college in order to prepare for a career. And we do a career simply to make money. Liberal arts departments everywhere are fighting for their lives because those of us in the humanities believe that education is about far more than maximizing our students’ earning potential. It is about cultivating human beings.

Research has proven that emotional intelligence is a more accurate indicator of a person’s success in every area of their lives (professional and personal) than mere intellectual intelligence. Those who navigate relationships with other human beings compassionately and creatively simply do better in life. We know this is true. Yet, we set aside the very thing that we can prove scientifically improves emotional intelligence. We take it out of our curriculum and downplay its importance to our students’ lives. That is foolish at best, and possibly a little insane.

Let me illustrate from a great piece of children’s fiction. Our class read The Phantom Tollbooth a few weeks ago. In this story, Milo travels to a magical land and has a series of adventures in which he helps to right the wrongs in this chaotic land. The land fell into chaos when an argument grew between the King of Dictionopolis (representing words and letters – read as “the humanities”) and the King of Digitopolis (representing numbers – read as STEM courses, sciences and maths). The kings fought over which was more important and could not compromise. They parted ways. At that time, the two beautiful sisters Rhyme and Reason (read as Wisdom) left the land altogether. Both kingdoms deteriorated into utter nonsense. They lost everything. Milo’s quest was to rescue Rhyme and Reason and bring wisdom back to the land.

Here is what we learned from the book: knowledge is useless without the wisdom to apply it to real life. Knowledge without wisdom becomes something monstrous. So, as we advance in our sciences and technologies, if we do not also grow in wisdom, develop as human beings with souls and consciences, we will descend into chaos and nonsense. We will have no basis for ethics. No ground upon which to make good decisions about how we use our knowledge.

We need the warnings of stories like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and so many others to counter our political arrogance. We need the brooding introspective darkness of the Russian novelists, the idealism of the Victorian/Romantic novelists, the stark realism of Steinbeck and Hemingway. We need the satire of Swift. The imagination of Wells and Bradbury. We need the spirituality of Tolkien and Lewis, the optimism of Chesterton. We need the humanity of Dickens. We need literature!

It frustrates the daylights out of me that “experts” in education who make curriculum decisions have bought into the blind pragmatism of this age. It saddens me that so many of my students are guided to choose their majors based on earning power rather than their own bent and passion. It baffles me that so many don’t know themselves well enough to have a strong opinion about choosing a career path. They just follow the money.

Maybe part of the problem is they are starved for stories.

Stories expose us to other possibilities, things we might never dream up on our own. Characters in books inspire us to become like them, providing role models that can be sadly lacking in real life. Stories are how human beings communicate with other human beings. Without stories, we become hollow. Superficial. We are morally and spiritually adrift.

So, here’s my plea: If you are a parent or an educator, put good books into the hands of the children in your care. Even if your school district isn’t doing it, you do it. It’s your responsibility and your privilege. And while you’re at it, grab a few books for yourself! Never stop growing. We will never outgrow our need for stories.