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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Empathy VS. Understanding

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.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I think it’s hard to develop empathy without developing understanding. Here’s one example. My students love Andrea Warren’s book Orphan Train Rider. One student told me, “I didn’t even skip the history chapters.” You see, clever Andrea Warren designed her book so that every other chapter was about the person’s life she was following and the other interspersed chapter was about the historical context. So while students do develop strong feelings for Lee Nailing, the orphan train rider, they also learn about history in order to better understand his life.

    My recent experience reading science books with fifth graders tells me that students can eagerly read for information–what I call reading with an inquiry-minded stance. They wanted to see if scientists were able to solve a problem. Students identified the problem, the problem solvers, their strategies for solving the problem, and the impact of these efforts. It’s a different mindset. However, there were people involved and I think the human element helps. Students connected with the scientists and through them they connected to their work. It was important, though, for us as teachers to emphasize this inquiry minded stance. The good news is, it wasn’t a hard sell. Students like it.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I like your two examples, but let me add a third and perhaps a fourth. Last night our six year old was up way late. Why? Because he was having so much fun solving math problems. Each “math box” he filled in gave him a sense of logic, order, power — the world fit together through the exercise of his ability to reason. That was his bedtime story — pattern, clarity, truths he could nail. He did not need to read about others, or have the problems framed in terms of real world choices and decisions (though some did involve making change). What pleased him was understanding, not feeling. That of course is one example of one child. But I want to put the children like him into the equation as one kind of reader, one kind of learner. My other example is about me — and thus perhaps discountable as an adult reaction. I have been reading a great deal of fiction. But I am also going to teach a one week online class to kids about the Crusades, so I took out a recent academic study on the subject. I felt such relief to be in a world of causes, effects, historical context, chronology. The book felt like such a gift to me — because I could learn, I could know what I had not known before. I was not looking for stories about individual popes, knights, battles, but rather for explanations of historical change. I think my experience was similar to my son’s — order, sense-making, explanation, fitting the unknown into logically connected parts, being given the chance to think, to question, to pose new ideas based on new information — that was true reading pleasure. And I do question whether enough teachers recognize those reading experiences and give them their due weight.

  3. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I think there is that kind of reading too–reading for the pleasure of knowing and mastering a subject. I do it myself. The question is, how do we spark this kind of reading in children? One way I have done this in the classroom is to invite children to become “experts” in a topic, to provide the time to do it, and to let children share their expertise. This simple idea really works.