“Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.” - David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary ...
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This particular article picks up on one of the more common threads in those commentaries, namely that science is providing data-based evidence of what those of us who love and teach literary fiction have known in their guts for a long time in spite of the fact that so many of our literary friends have articulated that point quite clearly. Atticus Finch said it out loud, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
Isn't that a familiar message? How many echoes from great literary fiction come to mind? Until you climb into that old jalopy with Tom Joad and head out for California hoping against hope? Until you get kicked out of the Castle of Thunder-ten-Tronckh as take that bumpy ride with Candide? Or travel alongside Gulliver to insanely unfamiliar places that seem sooo familiar?
So as I read this third or fourth followup article to the original research, my question was what does its author Andrea Badgley bring to the conversation. The answer is plenty!
For example, I did not know that "there is an entire journal, Scientific Study of Literature dedicated to pursuit of this research." If you're like me, you'll have to take Badgley's word for it that this journal is of the quality one expects from journals that are peer reviewed since a quick Google search revealed that the journal itself is probably well out of most of our budget limitations.
Badgley also references the conversation of how literary fiction relates to the "Theory of Mind" (ToM) which she defines (quoting from the original study) as " 'the capacity to identify and understand others' subjective states,' allowing us to detect and infer others' emotions, beliefs, and intentions."
It seems to me that there are several, okay way too many, examples to be found in the black and white polarization of public discourse that has caused extensive gridlocking of public opinion and government response to public opinion, that too many of us no longer are even capable of detecting and inferring others' emotions, beliefs and intentions well-enough to take those emotions, beliefs, and intentions that are not our own into consideration as sometimes being valid, but diffeent concerns.
As a result, compromise has almost become a "dirty word" of sorts. And, "for the common good" has devolved into a tug of war where too many believe and even profess that those "on the opposing side of the rope" are either idiots or unpatriotic. This black and white "tug of war" does not bode well.
So if the Theory of Mind has merit then perhaps literary reading ought to be given an increased presence in the classroom or at the very least, an increased presence in the assessment of literary reading which has been reduced significantly since assessing the "skill set" associated with literary reading is so difficult to accomplish.
Let me pause and clarify that last statement. The ELA Common Core State Standards for literary reading have been quite controversial in that there has been much concern expressed regarding the PERCEIVED decreasing percentage of literary reading in relationship to informational reading. This is technically a misperception in that the Common Core State Standards suggest that the reading standards are to be applied across the campus so that in effect, the percentages of each type of reading may well be about the same as they have been given the amount of informational reading that has always been done in "other curricular areas."
However, that being said, one need only read up on the percentages of assessment questions for each type of reading on the Smarter Balance tests, particularly in the area of numbers and quality of the literary reading questions, to see that even if the percentages established in the standards are actually reasonable, given the emphasis on the assessment of the standards achievement there are clear indications that smart money would bet that improving informational reading would be a much quicker way to raise a school's performance stats than improving literary reading would.
And, history is fairly full of evidence that teaching to the "power standards" (those that are more likely to raise a school's scores) will have a de facto influence on whether or not literary reading continues to receive its due attention at staff and budget meetings.
This brings me to what is, in my mind, the most significant contribution that this article brings to the conversation. That is that although "literary fiction is not (easily) quantifiable or, frankly, definable," what is it that literary fiction brings to the curriculum that separates it from the much less defendable "pop fiction"?
What does literary fiction do "for us" that may well be a solid source for developing incredibly critical skill sets in the a flat world so that our students will find themselves better prepared to succeed in a global world if they can work together with people of different "emotions, beliefs, and intentions" in considerate respectful (kind) and civilized ways?
The biggest nugget in this goldmine of well-considered ideas for me was the bulleted list that appears about half-way through the article. By listing the distinctions between literary reading and pop literature, it becomes quite clear that the former causes us to exercise our minds in ways that are absolutely critical and yet seriously under appreciated in most classrooms.
Finally, the article ends with what is almost a sidetrip into the author's personal regrets for not having been really clear on the value of literary reading while in college where she still thought of reading as primarily a source of great pleasure rather than a pleasurable way of absorbing great wisdom.
I was intrigued by her confession that her choice to pursue what she believed was her passion for science was a bit misdirected. She mistook her passion for learning about science for a passion about doing science. A distinction that a great many people recognize as an important element of the Common Core State Standards in its refocusing attention on assessing what they can do and will able to do with knowledge over merely what knowledge they have accumulated.
I had not previously realized that the slight hesitation I'd felt ever since the concept of encouraging students to pursue their passions became a "THE mantra" thrown around department meeting and educaitonal conference presentations as though it was an unquestionable trump card in educational reform conversations.
Of course, motivation and intellectual engagement is greatly enhanced when students are allowed to pursue their existing perceptions of their "passions." But, the downside as I have always perceived my "slight hesitation" was that truthfully, if I had focused only upon my existing passions during my high school years, I' would probably have wound up in jail rather than in college. It was only by chance that my experience in high school pursuing a relationship with a girl I had never even spoken to who I nevertheless believed I was madly in love with, that got me motivated to talk my way into an advanced English class that I knew she was going to be in. And, it was in that English class where a "god" of a teacher found a way to plant the seed of a new interest that I don't believe I would ever have explored if I hadn't been required to, found a way to engage me in literary reading to such a degree that I chose to completely revise my own understandings of what I really wanted to do with my life as an adult.
As a result, much in the same way that the author of this article discovered that some of her early passions turned out to be regrets later in life, I came to actually regret that in my senior yearbook where I was featured as being the male student with the best personality had become a source of embarrassment as I had by the time the yearbook was distributed, discovered that much of the personality for which I had been selected for that recognition was based upon my having mastered the art of being a friendly class clown much more interested in the attention I'd received by my classmates as a result of my sometimes thoughtless sense of what might amuse my classmates.
I'll just leave it at that. I live with regrets about the unrecognized cruelty of sexist, racist, and homophobic "I was just joking" humor upon which I too often relied upon to get laughs.
So, yes! Encourage a pursuit of existing passion, but enourage a constant contemplation of the depth of understanding of those early passions. And, find engaging ways to help students explore the possibilities that teenage passions may be much less important to them as they transition from teens to actual adults.
And, that's where depth of character may rest upon the discovery of one's unrecognized areas of shallowness of character. It's a delicate art this business of ours. It is not easy to make suggestions about refiining one's passions without sounding like we're discouraging them from pursuing those passions.
But thankfully, storytelling has long been an engaging and pleasureable way of coaxing ourselves into paying attention to ideas to which we'd not previously given enough thought.
25 Nov 2013
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