It is a difficult argument to make to a diminishing audience of readers in a world wedded to data that literature can lay the groundwork for more empathic children and young adults—and therefore a stronger citizenry. That more than ever the value of reading about the lives of others may serve as an antidote to the virus of narcissism and segregated systems of belief and class. In primary and secondary schools we have the last captive audience we may ever have for this task.
If you are bumping up against this argument, you are asking: doesn’t the experience of empathy begin and end with the family, like most forms of morality? Is empathy even a morality? And doesn’t the value of experiential learning, when we talk about education, outweigh anything to be gotten from a text? After all, Tom Sawyer was the reader; Huck Finn was the experiential learner; there is no question about who emerged from those adventures as a more empathic person. The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom (in articles in The New Yorker and Boston Review) argues that empathy can actually exhaust and narrow the potential for addressing larger issues of social justice. He makes a useful distinction between cognitive versus emotional empathy—an experience of empathy one apprehends through imagination versus an experience of actually walking in the other’s shoes or having undergone a parallel challenge. James Baldwin’s, ML King’s, or Gandhi’s attitudes towards their oppressors are acts of imaginative empathy. The empathy of my first generation immigrant students when they read a short story by Junot Diaz goes well beyond imagination.
Reading in and of itself does not empathic citizens make. The impact of a relationship between a teacher, a book, and a student can cultivate and augment empathy best in correspondence with real-world, experiential learning. The factors that we as teachers insert into this algorithm are delicate and make a real difference. Who is in your classroom and how much flexibility is there in the books you choose to suit those students? How often do students get to ask questions that customize their reading to their own experience? How open is a classroom to uncomfortable ideas? How much does reading in one subject, from middle school on up, integrate with learning in other subjects, so that the experience of reading is iterative and deep?
And when we do choose texts with this purpose in mind, where are the most likely points of entry for laying this groundwork? As I noted before, not all works of literature are chosen for their empathic potential—nor should they be.
I had an extraordinarily instructive lesson in this regard while teaching the playwright Bertolt Brecht in a modern drama class to a senior class in an all girls school. I primed my class for the reading of Mother Courage by discussing with them Brecht’s theory of alienation, whereby drama’s social and political purpose is achieved by distancing the audience from any sort of sympathy or empathy with the characters, since such emotion stinks of “petty bourgeois sentimentality” (my satirical quotes, not Brecht’s). From a drama history standpoint, this effect is an important break from former playwrights. Yet reading is a different story, and far more unpredictable. As the self-serving and cynical Mother Courage loses one child after another, trying to pretend nothing matters other than survival, my students were having none of Brecht’s alienation theory. In fact, my best readers were incredibly moved by her plight, and even entered an imaginative state of empathy by understanding her plight as a mother conflicted by her ambition, even though they had never lived in a war torn country with victims trapped in a cruel catch-22. In a final writing assignment, I asked students to discuss whether Brecht had failed—at least in a reading rather than a viewing of the play—in the application of his theory. The class divided evenly, and some students even said they had an easier time walking in Mother Courage’s shoes than, say, those of Chekhov’s characters, or even Lear, whose lines about suffering as others do stand as some of the greatest lines about developing empathy ever written. Then we viewed two productions of the play on video. Two different productions. Same result.
But as we get older, the experience of empathy becomes riskier, more vulnerable, more painful. As we thicken our skins for the sake of survival, it takes much more to pry us open. Literature offers a collective simulacrum of experience that may plant durable seeds and that, over time, make our students more attentive to opposing points of view and more immune to prejudice.