Furthest Right

Was Universal Literacy A Mistake?

The problem: people may be able to read, and think they understand what they read, while missing the full understanding. Another way to phrase this, consistent with Dunning-Kruger, is that people read for what they can understand.

As an article in The Week points out, that can lead to partial understanding just like any filter that excludes all but what supports the thesis of the reader would do:

“Fiction might be the mind’s flight simulator,” Keith Oatley wrote in a recent review of the research on reading and mental health, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Research into the psychological impact of literature suggests that when we read stories in which characters are rich and developed, we actually slip into those characters ourselves. By taking on these other personalities, we learn what it’s like to be someone else, and improve our own social skills.

The type of reading matters, Oatley and his colleagues at the University of Toronto have found. Books that emphasize plot do not have the same benefits as those that focus on character development, and fiction provides more of a boost than nonfiction.

By taking on these other personalities, we venture into a world of insanity: we are not those people, and pretending to be them is a mental model that functions more like drugs than literature.

In a great book, each character represents a curve. The character is faced with a conundrum, and makes a decision, and then we see the results of that decision not in yes|no/good|bad, but in terms of granular degree of many different factors.

This is why pop fiction quickly separates from classic literature; pop fiction focuses on the ego of the reader, and gives them something to project themselves into (Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight) with the usual emotional appeal of victimhood, lust, tragedy, being needed, being alone, and the like.

In literature, one does not project into a character because each character is an argument for a certain moral and realistic approach to the philosophical problems posed by certain situations, and the point of the book is to compare outcomes not cheerlead for one side like propaganda or advertising.

Pop fiction is closer to propaganda and advertising than literature.

The writer of this piece misunderstands empathy. Empathy does not mean approval, validation or inclusion, but being able to see the limitations of a person and the challenge before them as if through their eyes, and to recognize the difficulties they face in making choices. The way the writer of that article uses it, empathy means something akin to egalitarianism, i.e. “approval and inclusion of everyone.”

In reality, empathy includes a recognition that our acts are literal in a literal world, and so results are as one would expect. We may feel the struggle of a character, and even wish them well, but not to the level of excluding them from the group of us who face the consequences of our actions.

This leads us to wonder if universal literacy was a mistake. We have people reading (and writing) books who do not understand what literature is, or what can actually be communicated, and instead are coming away from these books with the kind of robotic logic one might get from a TV commercial or WWII propaganda film.

In result, this means that our bookstores and libraries and minds are being submerged under a vast wave of disguised ineptitude, encouraging us to become schizophrenic and deny reality at the same time.

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