Scanning the education news last week, I was struck by a headline in the Guardian on reading:
"Lost for words? How reading can teach children empathy".
As I am putting the finishing touches to a reading course to be launched next academic year, I plunged in.
The article, written by an organisation that "builds empathy skills", starts by telling us that empathy has been identified as an important "global skill" and that a Cambridge University study has proved that more reading equals more empathy. The article then advises teachers on how they can “use stories to boost empathy among students”. Here is one of their recommendations:
"One approach is to find texts exploring familiar life scenarios to help children understand what their peers might be experiencing. At primary and secondary level there’s a text for just about every situation. For instance Kes Gray’s Mum and Dad Glue helps children empathise with friends’ pain when parents separate and Phil Earle’s Being Billy gives older readers a profound insight into how it feels to live in a young people’s care home."
I am sure the researchers from Cambridge are quite right about empathy’s importance in the global marketplace, as I am sure that the writers of this article have nothing but the best intentions in recommending those particular books. However, the article left me troubled on two counts.
Firstly, to stress the utility of a subject – what it can do for you, the skills it can teach you – always seems to me one of the baser appetites towards which a hopeful parent or teacher might make an appeal. There are all sorts of uses for reading: to inform oneself, to increase one’s vocabulary, to be a swank at parties. None of them is sufficient in itself to win a child over to the side of the booklovers. Anyone who has truly loved a book knows what Sylvia Plath meant when she wrote, “I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print, the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree.” Somehow, “building empathy skills” fails to capture that mysterious joy of reading, indeed rather darkens its lustre.
More urgently, the books recommended by the article seem designed to encourage empathy only for the most distressing of social maladies: divorce, orphanage, homelessness etc. This is all very well, but again rather misses some of the larger joys that reading has to offer. With the UK’s History, RS and English national curriculum so often skewed towards 20th and 21st Century “content”, children are ever more in danger of being trapped in what T S Eliot called the tyranny of the present. “The true aim of literary studies is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him the spectator, if not of all, yet of much, time and existence,” wrote C S Lewis less than a century ago. What could be more effective in “building empathy skills” than taking children out of the grim realities of the present day to ride on the back of Aslan, say, or join Ratty and Mole for a picnic by the Thames? How much more potent is empathy when it is in league with imagination?
With acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell and buttercup replaced in the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary with attachment, block-graph, bullet-point and committee, surely we can have richer hopes for our children’s reading, one that connects them with the past, than that offered by this article? As we go about writing our own reading course, stuffed full of excerpts from great children’s literature through the ages, we shall be keeping such considerations in mind.
I’ll end with a poem written by Malcolm Guite on the loss of old words:
To graceful names and lovely woods farewell
To acorn, adder, ash, to beech and bluebell,
Farewell old friends I name you in my sonnet
Buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet
Farewell, your fields are brick, our books are barren
No dandelion or fern, hazel or heron
We'll go no more alone, no more together
The mountain thyme is gone and gone the heather
The clinging ivy's gone and soon to go
The kingfisher's blue bolt, the mistletoe
Nectar, newt, and otter, pasture, willow
To their last rites my muse comes footing slow
We'll hear no more the heaven-scaling lark
We'll all go down together in the dark.