A little house sits on a wooden stock just outside of writer Eudora Welty’s home in Jackson, MS. It’s marked by a sign, "Little Free Library," that encourages a curious passerby to open the door, explore, and take or leave a story for the next traveler.
While the compact nook is meant to be a friendly project to encourage literacy within the neighborhood, it serves another purpose. The library aids the state’s forward thinkers with a decades-long effort: Promoting an understanding of other people.
Research from a 2013 “Science” report by two psychologists, Emanuele Castano and David Kidd, shows reading literature enhances Theory of Mind (ToM), or the human capacity to comprehend differences in beliefs and desires among people. ACT’s latest survey on college and career readiness reported this behavioral quality as essential to student success beyond the high school level.
Within an increasingly diverse population, workforce and campus, employers and college admissions experts say they highly value students’ ability to work with others, in addition to a number of non-academic skills, including “acting honestly” by treating others sincerely and genuinely, “sustaining effort” and “keeping an open mind.”
As the student population continues to evolve demographically, K-12 teachers and administrators, who are trying to fill learning gaps in college and career readiness, must confront an increasingly unavoidable question: How do we teach students to understand each other?
Tapping into ToM: Literary fiction
In order to inculcate their students with the behavioral traits workplaces and colleges seek — a sense of human understanding — college instructors can tap into one of the most abundant and, often times, most cost-effective resources in the world: books.
But not just any books. Castano says that the most effective reading material to encourage empathy is literary fiction, the type of work that authors, such as Welty and her contemporaries, utilized in order to express their views on the political, social and cultural issues that surrounded them.
“In the experiments we ran, we saw the immediate effects of the readings even after just 15 minutes or so,” said Castano. “We also have some data showing how much exposure people have had to fiction, and we demonstrate that it is only exposure to literary fiction, specifically, that has better effects on theory of mind, not popular fiction.”
Castano explained that a number of different publications had mentioned works by classical authors, such as Chekhov, as enhancing ToM. He took care to explain, however, that literary fiction in the study can be anything which has complicated, or ‘round’ characters, which force the reader to think outside the box.
“Only a small percentage of the participants in one of the five studies read Chekhov; a lot of people also read contemporary authors,” he said.
“Round characters are characters that are complex, obscure, and difficult to interpret. If the characters are like this, the reader is forced into this process of mentalizing…[and] we are making the case that this kind of writing characterizes literary fiction more than other genres.”
Filling the gaps: The business perspective
Educators that devalue the importance of literature in the curriculum are making a mistake, according to Keith Oatley, author of “Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction.”
“I think there has been a movement against literature and against the humanities and our research shows that that is a mistake,” he said. “Reading fiction, particularly literary fiction that stresses character, is as important as engineering or business.”
Oatley goes further to say that reading books can also be an important tool for people in the workplace, who need empathy in order to better perform their jobs.
“In order to cooperate you need to be able to understand the other people; anything you can do to help that understanding is going to be important,” he said. “When you have to work with other people — if you can’t empathize with them you aren’t going to get anywhere.”
Empathy, and by virtue the act of reading, has an obvious connection to entrepreneurship and being an effective business leader, according to Tim Askew, CEO at Corporate Rain International, in his article for Inc. Like Oatley, he says that this reality gets lost in as technology becomes emphasized over, rather than in conjunction with, traditional liberal arts studies.
“Not just literature but all of the liberal arts are crucial for developing skills of empathy. This is not much emphasized in the increasingly technical, data-centric way much of present business pedagogy is oriented,” he wrote.
Emphasis on literature, he explains, helps students garner the non-academic behavioral qualities that would prepare them for success in the business world and within a collaborative setting, such as a diverse college campus.
“I would say that in the long-term, a broad education in thinking and the cumulative wisdom of the ages buttresses skills of resourceful human resiliency and flexibility that supports an increasingly vital intuitive entrepreneurial nimbleness, supporting good understanding of the long-term strategic forest, as well as near-term technical trees,” he wrote.
“It helps us to hear and truly understand other people's stories and tell our own stories in an accessible manner.”
Looking beyond readiness to building the whole person
Literary fiction serves a greater purpose beyond developing the nonacademic skills employers seek, and that it’s just as important for educators to recognize this fact, according to David E. Kirkland, an English professor at New York University.
“There’s a greater goal in education,” said Kirkland. “When we flush literature down the toilet, we also flush opportunities to enhance our humanity, to prepare people to participate in a multicultural global democracy in ways that might heighten our level of human participation in the larger project of humanity.
“School is beyond career and college training. We are preparing people to interact in a multicultural democracy.”
Castano emphasizes that the content of the literary fiction doesn’t matter for ToM development, so much as its complexity in depth of the characters.
“Nothing that we have used has dealt with these issues at all. Our arguments are a much more general argument about the complexity of the characters.”
Though, he said, the content of the book can influence the direction of the reader's empathetic development. When Welty and her contemporaries wrote about racism, the readers didn’t necessarily understand racism as a concept but rather gained a better understanding of how the characters think and feel about racism.
“Content enhances empathy toward the specific people that are subjects of the books,” said Castano. “It’s possible that if the literary fiction is about racism toward African-Americans, for instance, that this work would foster empathy in the direction of that issue for the reader.”
Castano and Kidd included myriad books in their study, and many experts have suggested literature like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and DeLillo’s “The Runner” as being effective in improving ToM. Popular fiction, such as Danielle Steel's “The Sins of the Mother,” however, is excluded from this list.
Though of course, Kirkland emphasizes that for administrators and educators hoping to fill gaps in readiness, it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal of education is to build the whole self.
“We don’t quantify what happens to us when you read Richard Wright and begin to transform.” he said. “There are no aptitude tests that will help us understand the importance of that."