Want Your Teens to Be Kind? Have Them Brush Up on Their Bronte

Take heart, English teachers! Hold your heads up. There is now research supporting the benefits of reading literature.

Try this great comeback when your students say, “Why do we have to read this stuff? What does it have to do with our lives?”

Just say, “It can help you get a date. Or maybe maintain a relationship.”

In a study published in the Oct. 2013 journal Science, researchers found that reading literary fiction pumps up people’s emotional intelligence – things such as empathy and reading other people’s body language.

In the study, subjects were asked to read literature for just a few minutes, and then the researchers measured results. They found that after reading literary fiction for even a short time, people – even those who professed not to like it – scored better on tests measuring understanding and empathy.

Interestingly, popular fiction didn’t elicit the same result, which is no surprise to this English major. Popular fiction is plot-driven and, while it can be entertaining, doesn’t really invite readers to explore the complexity of human beings and their many emotions.

The New York Times had a good blog about the study.

While I think literature should be taught for a variety of reasons, I was glad to see a quantitative study that gives English teachers everywhere a little ammunition in these days when Technology, Math and Science are given top billing over literature and the arts.

(And, by the way, standardized tests, even ones with “essay options” are a terrible way to measure a student’s understanding of literature.)

So, before school curriculum developers replace literature with technical manuals, or a soft diet of popular fiction, we would do well to remember that this generation will be taking care of us in our old age. Perhaps a little empathy would be in order.

Categories: Editor’s Blog