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BFTP: Building the capacity for empathy

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post July 12, 2008. I worry now that the Common Core ELA standards begin to stress students reading of non-fiction that fiction will take a back seat. Once again are we preparing students for yesterday's world? This post was also reincarnated as a column.

Stephen (Lighthouse) Abrams pointed out a fascinating article [link no longer working - sorry] about how reading fiction builds social skills and empathy:

A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills. Their years of research ... has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts.1

I suppose for most readers, especially librarians and English teachers, this is a "Well, duh!" sort of conclusion. But it is gratifying to have our observations confirmed.

Empathy? Social acumen? Are they necessary for surviving and thriving? Our national associations and gurus seem to think so. 

From NETS 2007:

Students ... develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures. ...use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions.

From  AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner 2007 ...

Students will: Consider diverse and global perspectives in drawing conclusions. social responsibility by participating actively with others in learning situations and by contributing questions and ideas during group discussions. 

From Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind:

Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.

The unsung hero of success is empathy. Understanding the needs and desires of others is critical for leaders, salesmen, politicians, lotharios, preachers, CEOs, writers, teachers, consultants ... well, just about everybody. The better one understands others, the more effective one can meet their needs, appeal to their self-interests or, I suppose, manipulate them. And with a global economy, our empathy needs to extend beyond  understanding just our next door neighbor.

The question is then - can empathy be learned - and how? Is there a small muscle somewhere in the mind or soul that can be exercised, stretched, and built that allows us to more fully place ourselves in others' shoes?

Reading fiction - especially when the setting is another culture, another time - has to be the best means of building empathic sensibilities. How do you understand prejudice if you are not of a group subject to discrimination? How do you know the problems faced by gays if you are straight? How does it feel to be hungry, orphaned, or terrified when you've always lived a middle-class life? Harnessing the detail, drama, emotion, and immediacy of "the story," fiction informs the heart as well as the mind.

Viewing the world through the eyes of a narrator completely unlike oneself, draws into sharp detail the differences, but also the similarities of the narrator and reader. And it is by linking ourselves through similarities - common human traits - that we come to know others as people, not just stereotypes.

Unfortunately, as school budgets are stretched, school library funds that purchase quality fiction and school library professionals who select and promote quality fiction are too easily axed, replaced by reading programs, specialists, and tests of basic comprehension.

The question is never asked: If one can read but is not changed by reading, why bother?

Maybe I will scrap my plans for reading Shirkey, Suriwiki, et. al. this summer and pull up a few good novels on the Kindle instead... 

Oh, my nominee for best empathy building novel I've read recently is Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Reading it left me with a better understanding of autism and autistic children. A recent empathy builder you can recommend?

1. Mick, Haley “Socially Awkward? Hit the Books” Globe and Mail. 10 July 10 2008.

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Reader Comments (4)

Hi Doug,

I bought a book on whim, this past Easter. It's called "The Freedom Writers Diary".

The Freedom Writers Diary

The subtitle read "How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them".

I picked up the book as I enjoy writing and I love to see kids switched onto writing. I didn't expect the read would give me a huge education on the issues of racism and its effect on students and education, but it did. Wow! What a huge eye-opener.

By coincidence, the trial of Zimmerman was going on during part of the time I was also reading (the Trayvon Martin case).

Though this book is not fiction, it's a story and told in narrative form (in the format of a diary). As I read it, I wondered to myself how much the discourse might have changed if the jurors, journalists, media, general public had read it at anytime prior to the Trayvon Martin incident itself (even years before...)

The reading gave me powerful insight and empathy for the challenges that minority (especially black) youth face. I never got even a fraction of that, while reading expository material.


August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Hi Vivian,

Yes, I should add that good narrative writing, fiction or non-fiction, builds empathy. For those of us who like to read, we can live a thousand lifetimes instead of just one. Thanks for the book recommendation!

All the best,


August 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

For empathy building, try Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Amazing read, told from multiple characters' perspectives. The tag line for this book? "Choose kind." It's a book that stays with you...

August 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

Thanks, Shannon. It's now on my reading pile!


September 3, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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