The new common core standards for English/Language Arts call for, among other things, less fiction and more nonfiction in American ELA classrooms. The thinking is that most of what we read on a daily basis is nonfiction, so we’d better teach more of it so students are better equipped to understand the genre, both for comprehension and composition purposes.
But I’d hate to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. While in theory I agree with the idea that more nonfiction makes for better preparation for the future, I’m not sure I’ve found that to be the case in practice.
This year I’ve asked students to read excerpts from controversial articles and op-eds, such as the original excerpt from the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom that caused such a sensation a year ago, and discuss them in class in between the standard literature on the docket. I’ve noticed that the nonfiction never grabs them the way I think it will. They sort of collectively shrug it off: “Yeah, this woman’s kind of psycho,” one student comments, summing up her feelings on the Tiger Mom. Another counters, “Yeah, but my dad is like that.” And then they discuss this for five or so minutes and then the discussion goes dead, no matter how much I try to revive it. There is something about journalistic nonfiction that doesn’t seem to engage the kids the way I think it will. I’ve tried a variety of blogs, articles, and op-eds with both my freshmen and juniors this year, but the debate never becomes alive, even if they debate concepts back and forth in an informed and intelligent way.
But the literature produces a different effect — they seem to attach themselves to certain characters, such as Charlie from Flowers for Algernon, or Levin in Anna Karenina. They grow to love them, or hate them (there are quite a number of Holden Caufield haters out there in grade 9). They defend them fiercely, citing the text. They rake them over the coals, citing the text. They relate them to their own selves, friends, and family members. They question whether the characters are heroic or not (this year the majority of grade nine voted Odysseus the “least heroic” of the major characters we studied due to his several infidelities, whilst his poor Penelope was home weaving the years away in loyalty). In short, they get into the literature; they take it on, personally, and — whether they ultimately like it better than nonfiction or not — they seem to have more stake in it.
So I was fascinated to come across this piece in the Harvard Business Review blogs on studies done of fiction readers and how they are more empathic and perhaps better judges of character in real life. The piece convincingly argues that fiction reading translates strongly to better people skills in the workplace.
But there is something else that I think is worth mentioning in the fiction vs nonfiction debate in ELA classrooms, and that is the value of story. Fiction and memoir are the product of the art of story-telling, which explores what human existence is all about. It’s one of the key aspects of what makes us human and not animal — our desire for myth and story; it has religious, political, historical and artistic implications. Consider, for example, the story of Adam and Eve, a story that is told by the three biggest monotheistic religions of the world. It has been treated and explored in Western literature and poetry (not to mention art) thousands of times. This archetypal story has influenced social and gender beliefs (woman as temptress), marriage laws (arguments against gay and interracial marriage), and even medical responses (woman’s fate in suffering painful childbirth). Students who get a chance to read how the story of Adam and Eve plays out in Christina Rosetti’s poems, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, and even Charlie’s fate in Flowers for Algernon, have a deeper sense of the human desire and tendency to tell our stories over and over again in new and varied iterations. In short, it’s not just about empathy, its also about our human art, our history as storytellers.
I think this is precisely why students respond on a more committed, visceral level to literature than to the nonfiction in my class — we all still love a good story. We get sucked into it, as in a good movie, wanting the hero to succeed and the villain to get his just desserts.
I think it’s reasonable and practical to ask students to read more nonfiction, but I do think we’d really be losing something important — something vital — if we blindly switched to teaching a majority of nonfiction in ELA classes. In my own classes, I’ve watched fiction provide students with the opportunity to test out threatening concepts — homosexuality, suicide, infidelity, divorce, lost love, back-stabbing friends, racial and gender stereotypes — because they feel safe discussing them as characters and symbols. Fiction allows us to lose ourselves in story, not just for enjoyment, but also to test our own identities, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask us if we are as good as the hero, as bad as the villain.
The great mythology scholar Joseph Campbell put it best, “Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”