Saturday, September 29, 2018

If Reading Builds Empathy...

Note: This is an opinion piece. This is not a scholarly essay. It's not going to have well-cited sources. I've read all the books I discuss here. I've been forced to read them in high school, and re-read them for graduate school. I've read teacher guides on them and listened to teachers discuss the merits of teaching these books. Everything here is anecdotal. It's more of a question than an answer.

I have a vehement hatred for a specific sub-genre of realism: White Boy Attends Prep School and Reveals the Human Condition.

See: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

White boys attending prep schools are in a minority in the US. They are definitely special, in that they have unique experiences that are pretty much inaccessible to the wider population. Reading books about their experiences should be like an anthropological experience.

"Here, we see this bizarre subculture where everything is cutthroat and emotions must be bottled up and buried because discussing them is a sign of weakness. They claim the law of the jungle is kill or be killed, that life is hopeless and without meaning."

Instead, high school curriculum treats these boys' experiences as somehow thematically reflective of all humanity. Holden Caulfield deserves our empathy even while he views the whole of the universe with a cynic's eye and calls anything and everything phony. The boys of the Lord of the Flies teach us lessons about how we're all little murderers at heart.

For a long, long time (and I know things are changing, and I know some teachers who are doing great work within the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement), the protagonists taught in High School English looked and behaved like Brett Kavanaugh. Placed on pedestals, the subject of essays and classroom discussions for decades. The ones that were treasured, listened to, given the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe no one (or very few people) intentionally taught that because these protagonists were worth studying, representative of the human condition as they are, that made white boys clearly superior and more genuine and more believable. But I have to wonder at the correlation.

If books teach empathy toward their subject matter, and the books that decades of people have been forced to read teach empathy specifically toward rich white dude protagonists, then does this mean some people are more likely to believe the rich white dude when his victim is equally credible? Is there some small bit of familiarity because of common ground in books?

#WeNeedDiverseBooks because we need empathy for all people. We need all voices to be viewed as equally deserving of empathy, not just one minority population.

It's not about replacing the classics. It's about contextualizing them, pairing them with books that demonstrate similar themes with other faces or contradictory themes that underscore problematic assumptions.

We need books like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart, where the young woman attending the prep school hijacks the top secret boy's club and manipulates its members and gets burned by her own toxic behaviors.

We need books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, where we develop empathy for Starr as she navigates cultural pressures in all aspects of her life, at home and at school.


We Need Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli to feel the pain of a homosexual student in the closet.

We need immigrant stories like The Good Braider by Terry Farish.

We need so much more than prep school boys can ever teach us.

We need to teach how valuable all voices are.

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