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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


And Thinking

Just back from AASL — I’ll talk about that in the next post — but first I have to tell you all about an article I just read. In the October 19 issue of the TLS, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum reviews Philip Zimbardo’s the Lucifer Effect; How Good People Turn Evil. In the way of the TLS the review is not just a response to the book, but to Zimbardo’s life work, and beyond that, to the really big questions outlined in the subtitle. Zimbardo famously did an experiement in 1971 where students at Stanford played the roles of prisoners and guards, and, quickly, the guards became cruel and abusive — so quickly, he stopped the experiment. In this new book, he applies what he learned back then to Abu Ghraib — why did some soldiers abuse prisoners, some enable the abuse (or merely keep silent about it), and yet Joseph Darby spoke up? 

Zimbardo’s lifework is showing how a situation creates the roles — in other words, it is not just the individual who chooses, but the circumstances mold the individual response. To put it in ways I’ve used with middle grade kids — what would be it be like to live in Salem in 1692 as people were being hanged for being witches — how would you have responded? Nussbaum does not entirely agree with Zimbardo — but where she does she makes a statement that leads directly to the focus of this column. There is one crucial factor that makes an individual able to resisit the pressure of a social circumstance in which powerful people are being cruel, abusive, hurtful, to those who are powerless. I was moved, deeply moved, when she said, it is "a society-wide emphasis on critical thinking, beginning in childhood. From their earliest days, children should be encouraged to think about the traditions and norms that govern their lives, and to ask uncomfrotable searching questions."

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! That is my whole point in this column — teaching nonfiction, teaching history, teaching science, teaching math is not passing on set information, it is teaching young people to think, to think for themselves, to challenge us. So our books need to be more than good story telling, more then a fun read. They need to engage young people’s minds, and to show them the instability of our knowledge. Reading Nussbaum’s review made me feel that in making our book models of thinking we are not merely serving an educational good, we are actually obeying a calling. We are helping young people to develop the habits of mind that will allow them to be the new Joseph Darbys. 

If teachers, parents, even some reviewers tell us our books need to be less open, less theoretical, more traditional, I say no — they need to be anything that will encourage a reader to be a thinker — to value his or her doubts, and interests, and questions. That is our mission in nonfiction, and a high and glorious one it is.