Reading, Personal Development, & Empathy

A great deal of emphasis in education is placed on  the so-called STEM disciplines.  STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  I agree with this emphasis, and have correctly argued that psychology is one of these STEM disciplines, and technology can certainly enhance instruction in these disciplines.  However, some critics have noted some downsides of technology.  Actually it is how technology is used rather than technology per se that constitute these downsides.  One author titled his book “The Dumbest Generation” and cites evidence that book reading, especially the reading of good literature is on the decline.  Sherry Turkle in her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” argues that the smartphones are a means of staying connected most of the time, and that these phones are used in placed of conversation.  At professional conventions you see attendees seated in a group, concentrating on their smartphones and not interacting.  The bottom line that emerges from reading both these books is that information is timely, but is used in a superficial manner.  Human interactions are largely superficial, and little of this information reaches the level of understanding or knowledge.

Another growing concern is that technology will result in more and more of the population losing jobs.  It is interesting to note that one of the strengths of humans versus machines is our ability to be empathetic.  It is also interesting to note that one of the best ways of developing empathy is through literature.  So it appears that the current use of technology is taking us away from developing empathic skills when it is exactly these skills that give us an edge over technology in the performance of technology.

David Denby’s book “Lit Up:  One Reporter, Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives” justifies the importance of reading and the proper teaching of literature.  Here is a quote from the Introduction:  “A child, read to and talked to, undergoes an initiation into a useful life; she may also undergo an initiation into happiness.”  Later in the Introduction he wrote, “the liberal arts in general, and especially reading seriously, offer an opening to a wider life, the powers of active citizenship (including the willingness to vote).”  He continues, “ Every great civilization, including ours, has had a great literature and great readers.  If literature matters less to young people that it once did, we are all in trouble.”

Indulge me in a personal note here.  Fortunately I began school in the first grade and was not forced into pre-school.  Consequently I had an additional year, at least, of freedom, of which many of my peers were deprived.  However, my Mom did read to me.  I vividly remember three books that she read to me:  Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, and Touchdown Pass.  Touchdown Pass was a story about a high school football player, Chip Hilton and his teammates at Vally Forge High School.  This book was written by Clair Bee who wrote a whole series of books about Chip Hilton and his friends playing football, basketball, and baseball in both high school and college.  After I did learn to read, I reread these books myself, and I read all of Clair Bee’s books.

When my Mom read me these books, I just marveled and all the information and enjoyment that came from these black symbols on a page.  Today, my Mom would be reading me these books on an iPad, which would have been just as effective.

Denby attended 10th and 12th grade English classes at three different schools over several years.  Beacon was a special school in a run down building on West 61st street in Manhattan.  James Hillhouse  High School, was an inner city school in New Haven (the city where Yale University is located) with a largely poor African American population.  Mamaroneck is in a wealthy New York suburb.

The teaching techniques varied among the teachers, but they each had these features in common.  The teachers had an inordinate amount of patience and continued to challenge the students to think about the books and to participate actively in class.  Written journals were kept by students throughout the school year  100% success was never achieved, but successes were clearly achieved in all these schools.

Frankly I was envious of these students.  I wish I had had instructors like these not only in my high school classes, but also in my University classes.  “Lit Up” clearly is an accurate title because many of these students were indeed “Lit Up.”

I concluded that there are ingredients that were essential to the success of these efforts.  The correct teachers are the most important.  These teachers need not only to have incredible patience, but they also need to be able to creatively challenge students, and they need to have a good knowledge of literature.  Moreover, they need to be given the freedom to choose their own reading lists.  Defining a required reading list, by any entity other that the teacher teaching the class, would be counterproductive.

I hope that educators read “Lit Up” and try to encourage the type of teaching exemplified in the book.  The need for this human touch is especially great in the technological era, and the rewards in terms not just of test scores, educational achievements, and jobs, but also in terms of meaningful and productive lives would be enormous.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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