I fell in love with literature at a very young age. I loved books so much, I wanted to create them, because I wanted to give readers the same joy many authors had given me.
Then, I grew up a little bit, and I realized that the only thing better than creating literature was sharing it with other people, and watching them experience it for the first time. That old adage about those who can’t do, teach? Totally wrong in my case. I actually believe I could have made it as a writer (I mean, y’all like my writing, right?), but chose not to because I wanted to recreate the positive experiences literature – and my teachers of literature – gave me.
Working in two high schools for five and a half years, I’ve also developed another desire. I want my students to be good citizens, and good people. This goes so much farther than wanting them to be informed consumers of media and pop culture, although that’s part of it. It also goes farther than wanting them to be tolerant, accepting individuals who help others, but that’s part of it, too. What it boils down to is that I desperately want them to think about their actions, analyze the world around them, and make choices that not only benefit them, but benefit the greater good, as well. I want them to practice empathy. I want them to understand the Human Experience. And how does one do that, with such limited experiences, without the aid of literature.
According to a recent study by Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, literature can, truly, open minds:
Reading narrative fiction (and potentially narrative non-fiction such as memoirs as well) is like a form of meditation, Oatley says, because it opens you up to emptying your mind of real-life concerns in favour of focusing on a fictional world.
“You go sit somewhere quietly, or you go lie on a couch, or go to bed, you put aside your own concerns and now you take on the concerns of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, or whoever it happens to be. So you then start to experience what life was like from within a different mind.”
That experience, although guided by the story, is entirely individual, Oatley says, which is why it affects everyone differently. This kind of individual response to a book is something most readers have experienced at some point, whether by crying over certain circumstances or applying a character’s lesson to their own life.
When I presented this article to my students prior to reading Fahrenheit 451, and asked them whether or not literature could change them, about half of the students were vehement in their response: NO! No one changes my mind but me. A story is just a story; it’s not true. Why should it change me? One student even went so far as to ask me if I was trying to brainwash them.
“No, I’m not trying to brainwash you,” I laughed. “I’m not going to tell you what to think. I just want you to think, period. To open your mind to new experiences and possibilities.”
And then, a funny thing happened. As they worked their way through the book, occasionally one of the students would tell me about how something from the book applied to her life, and made her think about it in a different way. Or about how he went home and decided to turn off his cell phone and television and enjoy the silence, just to see if the book was right.
Little by little, their minds began to open. Little by little, they began to understand a different set of human experiences – ones outside of their real-life experiences. And little by little, they began to move outside of themselves.
There are educational initiatives out there trying to move the teaching of English from literature to language arts. We’re being asked to focus on informational texts and practical grammar. Literature is becoming a fine art, like music and painting. A part of me believes this is the right thing to do; most of my students are not going to leave high school and become English lit majors. They will need knowledge of informational texts and practical grammar to succeed in life. And I truly do want to do what is best for my students.
But part of me believes that, if we take literature entirely out of the curriculum, students are going to lose access to the Human Experience, and that is dangerous ground to tread. Teaching practical English is vitally important, but if we lose what literature gives to us, we are in danger of losing tolerance, empathy, and the knowledge of experiences outside our own. I would hate to think of what a society without these qualities might look like.