I’ve reading a lot of middle grade and YA fiction recently, at the same time as I’ve been looking at materials about the educational objectives of Language Arts classes in middle grade. One word that often comes up is “empathy” — the idea that, as young people read more they will come to develop a deeper emotional understanding of others. In that sense, reading is serving as a form of socialization — as we read about people with difficulties, people with emotional problems, people in trying circumstances around the world or in other times and places we have the chance to deepen as individuals and grow as future citizens. So the sequence from To Kill a Mockingbird to Mockingbird, broadly drawn, is a journey into empathy. The developmental goal for the reader matches the reading experience provided by the books.
All of this is good, fine, correct, admirable. I remember how passionate I felt about social injustice reading To Kill a Mockingbird, or, later, Grapes of Wrath. But I would also like to raise a caution flag. It is one thing to treat empathy as a crucial emotional experience that literature can provide — and which school can nurture. It is quite another to valorize empathy as The Reading Experience. Because what I find lacking in all too many books for middle grade readers is a quest for knowledge, for understanding on the level of thought and insight, not only emotional identification. There is a difference between growing as a person and a reader because you feel for a character, because you “get” that character from the inside, because you have, metaphorically, walked in his or her shoes, and growing as a person and a reader because something makes sense to you in a new way, because you can explain it, because you can trace the causes, effects, consequences, and principles involved. I am not objecting to empathic learning, but, rather, to treating empathy as the entire focus of reading, and treating understanding as a minor subset that can follow from emotional connection.
I am of course exaggerating. I doubt that any teacher would say Empathy = Good; Understanding = Minor. But I do suspect that our industry — the authors, editors, reviewers, librarians, teachers involved are very comfortable with empathy as a positive form of reading connection, and for that reason too often generalize it as the heart of the reading experience. Why, for example, is science seen as “cold” when it serves to connect us with the world and universe all around us? Why is it acceptable in our world to talk about being bad at math, as a sign of shared experience? That is because we are treating rational understanding as of lesser value than emotional connection. And that ain’t good.