In college, I studied literature. What I learned about literature is that history, religion, and general knowledge are all wrapped up in narrative. So are our memories. We are the story we tell ourselves, as individuals, as nations, as peoples. Narrative is memory, and sometimes the narrator is an untrustworthy one.
I learned a lot about literature there, but I missed the important lesson: Why do we study literature? To learn empathy.
Lack of empathy is a fundamental problem in our society. Blame social media. Blame political polarization. Blame whatever you want. You could argue that society fractured in large part because we no longer share a common literature. We don’t read the foundational texts that, in part, make up our culture. We don’t read the foundational texts that make up other cultures—which may just help us understand other people. In school, whatever books we do read, that are “taught” to us, are dissected and analyzed, but not often enough put back together again and connected to anything real.
I think literature should be taught to teach empathy to students. Students should be told that is what it is for, and stories should be compared to real life events—not just personal experience, which is limited—as much as possible. We should think about making connections to ourselves and others, not just about connections between texts and ourselves.