Surfing the web, or browsing the internet as one might browse Barnes & Noble or the Gap, has become a national pastime. Surfing is a colorful metaphor for what we do when we are Facebooking or Googling or simply looking to kill time by searching for cat videos or another Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. After all, surfing is cool. It’s young, hip, risky, and even technologically savvy. But reading books? Not quite so much, at least so it seems for many young people these days.
Despite some survey results showing that young people are again reading books, particularly young adult novels, after a two-decade decline,1 it has become a sadly accurate truism that today’s teenagers are not as engaged in reading literary fiction as they once were.2 And the Common Core State Standards and social media are part of the problem.
First released in 2010, the Common Core State Standards, developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and currently adopted by 42 states, arguably have decreased the number of standards devoted to literary reading (particularly at the high school level) and replaced them with standards about reading informational, or nonfiction, texts that the authors of the standards describe as “complex.” Consequently, many middle school and high school teachers of English don’t have as much time or incentive to teach complete novels or lengthy works of fiction. Instead, they settle for teaching short excerpts, short stories, or essays that exhibit certain reading and interpretive skills that can be aligned to the standards.3
Young people in our middle schools, high schools, and colleges are still reading quite a lot, of course, as any teacher or parent can tell you. But they are primarily reading text messages, Facebook posts, hypertext, Wikipedia entries, emails, and “research” they find online with a quick Google search. In some ways, our youth are probably smarter, more curious, and more informed than any generation in history. However, they are not regularly immersed in sustained narrative experience, such as reading novels, as young people were 30, 20, or even 10 years ago.
The question at play here is a central one: So what if teens aren’t reading novels anymore? Does reading fiction really matter?
As a former high school English teacher and current English education professor, I am admittedly biased. For years I have been telling high school and college students that reading is good for them — like eating vegetables or wearing a seat belt. “It will make you a better person,” I’d say. “It will help you to understand other people, times, and places.” And if they still seemed skeptical, I’d resort to: “Just do it and you’ll see.”
Sometimes they followed my advice; sometimes they didn’t. Then I began teaching teachers and passed along this somewhat dubious advice: introduce students to the literary experience and they will like it. Build it and they will come.
About five years ago, I started becoming tired of my own discourse and less and less convinced by my own admonitions. Not only were many students not convinced of the value of immersing themselves in narrative fiction, but also it seemed that now many education policymakers weren’t either. So I decided to find out how I could answer the “why read literature” question in a more convincing way, a way that might demonstrate to teachers, students, and policymakers alike — as well as a general, increasingly nonreading public — why reading fiction actually matters. I started seeking out research studies from universities around the world, both qualitative and quantitative, showing with varying degrees of success why reading does really make people “better.” I did my own research in a local middle school in the Midwest near where I live, and I asked practicing secondary school teachers to share lessons they have taught during which they thought they succeeded in helping their students become more empathetic, socially conscious people through experiencing narrative fiction. Eventually, I put it all together in a book, A Case for Teaching Literature in the Secondary School (Routledge, 2015), which is an argument for teaching literature — for teaching and reading fiction in a STEM-obsessed world.
So what if teens aren’t reading novels anymore? Does reading fiction really matter?
The Humanities Revival
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) drives our world today in so many venues, in so many ways. Schools have become places where future scientists, engineers, and economists are supposed to be born and raised to change the world. Nearly every academic conference that is advertised in my email inbox is about science or technology. Educating science teachers is essential, we are told, given that it is a “high need” area. Young people are told they can only get good jobs and make money after college with a STEM major and career while English majors, on the other hand, will end up flipping burgers or pouring lattes. News articles tell us that the humanities and English departments are dying, fading away into obscurity.4 STEM is killing the English major, just as video killed the radio star in 1981.5 And the only people who seem to care are those poor English majors.
However, there are more than a few hints that the tide is turning. The article “What Can I Do with an English Major?” published in 2016, summarizes recent studies of salary earnings across different majors and concludes that “there is much more similarity in the occupational futures of BA holders than there are differences. Students should study what they love, work hard, learn a lot, and they will find employment success.”6 The article concludes that the myth of the unemployable English major is just that — a myth. Earning any degree is a higher predictor of career earnings than which degree is earned, and English majors end up gainfully employed in jobs in fields as diverse as life sciences, finance, health care, and education.
Additional studies are emerging that find corporations really do want employees with the skills the humanities have always promised to teach: collaboration, critical thinking, social awareness, curiosity, creativity, and communication. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, we are reminded, majored in English in college. As did Sting, Mario Cuomo, and Conan O’Brien. There is hope after all. In November 2014, Forbes magazine reported that among the skills most employers want from 2015 graduates are the abilities to work in teams, solve problems, and communicate verbally. The 2016 Bloomberg Job Skills Report enumerated “what recruiters want” in terms of managers, and these skills include leadership, strategic thinking, communication skills, analytical skills, and the ability to collaborate.
These types of “soft” skills are becoming more and more in demand in a world where young people hitting the job market have spent years of their lives engaging with computer screens rather than people, reading Facebook and Twitter rather than Jane Austen or John Steinbeck. Suddenly, these skills don’t seem so soft (read: easy) anymore; they are appearing more and more challenging, in demand, and necessary to future personal and professional success.
Apparently being an English major may not be a dead-end road.
But how do we convince our students of that? Our legislators? Our university presidents? Our preservice teachers?
The argument should not just be vocational or economic, as important as those things are. I discovered that there is empirical evidence — a lot of it in fact — demonstrating that reading literary fiction does make readers “better” people.7
What Research Shows About Reading Fiction
The process of understanding what we learn from reading is complex, but recent studies agree on the following cognitive value of studying literature.
- Reading fiction simulates brain activity parallel to that of real-world experience.8
- Identifying with characters in fiction is a complex, reciprocal experience that leads to increased empathy and engagement with texts.9
- Engagement with texts or motivation to read is linked to reading comprehension.10
- Reading narrative fiction increases inference-making abilities, empathizing with others, and valuing diversity.11
- Reading literary fiction can result in increased incidences of prosocial behavior.12
- While reading fiction can’t make you moral or ethical, it can encourage ethical decision-making.13
Today, education is driven in part by large testing companies and conglomerates that strive to make money off of standardized tests, textbooks, and scripted curricula. It isn’t always in the companies’ best interest to encourage teachers to teach literary fiction, particularly long fiction as it takes a lot of classroom time and response to it is difficult to assess. When such companies and conglomerates do venture into fiction, they tend to simplify, compartmentalize, itemize, and quantify it to package it for multiple-choice questions or alignment to measurable standards. Hence, the literary experience is degraded.
But the research — not to mention the intuition of most English teachers — suggests that we need to push back, to preserve that practice of reading, discussing, analyzing, and enjoying literary fiction. The latter point — about enjoyment — is particularly important. As researcher Victor Nell points out, the psychological experience of being “lost in a book” is a meditative “flow” experience.14 And this flow experience is essential for deep engagement, for learning, for psychological health.
Fiction cannot make a reader moral or ethical or a kinder human being; however, it can provide an opportunity for young readers to identify and empathize with characters and situations, think critically about these same characters and events, and vicariously sort through the personal choices the narrative offers. So, like actual surfing (not the Internet kind), reading literary fiction becomes real experience, an emotional, visceral, and intensely human experience — one that can make young readers more caring and confident as they act in the real world.
Can there be a better reason for reading literature than that?
How Do We Encourage Reading in an Age of Surfing?
Some suggestions for teachers and parents:
- Ensure that reading literary fiction, poetry, and drama is part of the curriculum.
- Expose young people to many books that they can explore.
- Read with young people and talk with them about the books, for reading is a social act.
- Allow young readers choice about what they read.
- When asking questions or assessing reading, do more than focus on plot summary; also ask about interpretations and suppositions.
- Help young readers make connections between books and their real lives.
- Don’t automatically assume that young readers will imitate what they read about; identification is more complex than that.
- Don’t think of narrative as only for young children; the value of reading and writing stories is ageless.
As we work to transform schools to meet 21st-century needs, we shouldn’t be swayed by rhetoric that downplays the role of literature in education. Rather, it’s better to look at humanities programs and courses and explore ways to usher them into a 21st-century context. Such contemporizing may include broadening the scope of the writers taught, offering more reading choices for students, refocusing literary discussions to center on skills and abilities such as empathy and creative problem-solving, or incorporating recent technologies into literature instruction.
However it’s preserved, it’s vital to remember that reading fiction matters.
Janet Alsup is a professor of literacy and language education and head of the curriculum and instruction department at Purdue University.
1Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, 2009.
2“Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” Research Division Report no.46, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, 2004.
3Janet Alsup, A Case for Teaching Literature in the Secondary School: Why Reading Fiction Matters in an Age of Scientific Objectivity and Standardization, New York: Routledge, 2015.
5This is a reference to a song, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” written by Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes, and Bruce Woolley in 1977 and performed by the group The Buggles and released on their album The Age of Plastic (Island Records) in 1980.
8Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. New York: Picador, 2008.
9Gary C. Woodward, The Idea of Identification. New York: SUNY Press, 2003.
10John T. Guthrie and Allan Wigfield, “Engagement and Motivation in Reading.” In M.L. Kamil and P.B. Mosenthal (Eds), Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. III, pp. 403–422. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
11See, for example, Linda M. Phillips, “Young Readers’ Inference Strategies in Reading Comprehension,” Cognition and Instruction, 5(3), 193–222, 1988; Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, and Jordan B. Peterson, “On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self,” Creativity Research Journal, 21(1), 24–29, 2009; Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, and Jordan B. Peterson, “Exploring the Link Between Reading Fiction and Empathy: Ruling Out Individual Differences and Examining Outcomes,” Communications, 34, 407–428, 2009.
12Dan R. Johnson, “Transportation into a Story Increases Empathy, Prosocial Behavior, and Perceptual Bias Toward Fearful Expressions,” Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 150–155, 2012.
13Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
14Victor Nell, Lost in a Book. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.