The past year has seen – for me, at least – some very disappointing setbacks to the growth of tolerance in much of the world. Why do people vote for politicians who espouse callousness and cruelty at the same time as denigrating other faiths, ethnicities and lifestyles? What can we, as teachers, do to offer an alternative perspective that embraces diversity and understanding? I believe that reading offers a partial solution.
Malorie Blackman is a prominent writer of children’s fiction in the UK. In an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, in 2014, she had this to say about the importance of reading fiction to develop an understanding of others’ lives and the challenges facing them:
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”
Blackman is especially interested in providing positive images of non-white kids in the UK to her young readers. Having been a victim of racism herself, she believes that reading fiction can change the perceptions of young people towards stigmatised others in society. And she is not alone. James Baldwin, an Afro-American gay novelist and civil rights campaigner, who was writing fromthe late 1950s through to the mid-‘80s, commented on his own experience of reading:
“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.”
And in case you have never read these novelists and, so, cannot judge how effective they have been in translating their views about inculcating empathy and a spirit of tolerance of diversity into compelling stories with characters we care about, then what about the Harry Potter novels?
Scientific American (2014) has documented Italian research, led by Professor Vezzali, (2014) into the broadening of tolerance among younger readers of the Harry Potter series. The reviewer, Bret Stetka, notes their identification with the eponymous central character, who is open-minded and brave and who stands up for stigmatised and marginalised characters in the stories. Reading about his adventuresopens up new situations for readers and allows them time to weigh up their reactions to a mocked or derided character, rather than simply following the herd by mimicking the commonly held negative attitudes held by their classmates or neighbours. In other words, when they put themselves in Harry’s shoes and identify with his behaviour, they also empathise with the characters he is trying to help. Similarly, if younger readers dislike the villainous Lord Voldemort and his henchman, Draco Malfoy, they also tend to dissociate themselves from their bullying, violent behaviour.
The Italian primary school children with whom this research was carried out experienced truly dramatic changes in their attitudes towards groups such as immigrants, if they were given extracts espousing sympathetic portraits of ‘Mud-bloods’ to read. A control group asked to read neutral passages experienced no such change in attitude. Follow-up studies among high school students into attitudes towards gay rights and with university students about their views on immigrants and refugees revealed similar findings.
As Mar, Oatley and Peterson (2009) point out, we spend a tremendous amount of time engaging with fictional characters, whether in the cinema, on TV, the Internet or the printed page. We feel for them and with them and this heightens our ability to associate with their worldviews. By carefully selecting texts that we as teachers recommend to our students, we can offer them positive portraits of marginalised characters and change negative stereotypes.
In my next post, I will look at practical ways of selecting texts that encourage the growth of tolerance and empathy in our students.
But, just so that we are in no doubt as to the universal nature of the benefits of reading fiction to shaping a more empathetic worldview in readers, I will finish with an excerpt from a letter by the great Victorian novelist, George Eliot, written in 1859, to her friend, Charles Bray:
“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.”
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