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    The truth about fiction

    Ohanian Comment: The Rotarian Magazine offers a fine explanation of the importance of fiction. NCTE offers a book series making accommodation to the Common Core. I tend to be quite tolerant of people holding pedagogies differing from mine: critical, maybe, but tolerant. But the Common Core Curriculum issue isn't about pedagogy. It is about power. Who's in charge? And who's going to lie down and play dead? Certainly NCTE powerbrokers and their spouses are quite free to write textbook series and offer staff development on any topic they choose. My quarrel is that are encouraging teachers to accept a systematic de-professionalization of their craft. My frustration, too, is with the 99% of NCTE members who allow themselves to be silenced by the 1%.

    Wake up, NCTE members. Your dues are paying for your professional destruction.

    Teachers, ask yourself why NCTE isn't protecting you from David Coleman and his chilling rules for literacy. Kudos to Leslie S. Rush and Lisa Scherff for their editorial in English Education, January 2012. The good news is that they warned readers about Coleman, pointing out that he's offering lessons based on New Criticism tenets hardly suitable to young readers' needs. The bad news is that they failed to give any specific references. But advising readers to do a web search for Coleman is hardly sufficient.

    And how many NCTE members read English Education? The NCTE website trumpets Common Core Standards Featured Publications:

    Grades PreK-2, Authors: Susi Long with William Hutchinson and Justine Neiderhiser

    Grades 3-5, Authors: Jeff Williams with Elizabeth C. Homan and Sarah Swofford

    Grades 6-8, Authors: Tonya Perry with Rebecca Manery

    Grades 9-12, Authors: Sarah Brown Wessling with Danielle Lillge and Crystal VanKooten

    All the books have the same boiler plate defense of the Common Core--soothing teacher worries by insisting that the books operate "from the assumption that ELA teachers can use standards as a lens through which they can examine and improve the what and ho of instruction."

    No mention of the why.

    At this moment, I happen to be reading Bringing Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel), where Thomas Cromwell remembers watching his late wife making a silk braid.

    "Slow down," he said, "so I can see how you do it," but she'd laughed and said, "I can't slow down, if I stopped to think how I was doing it I couldn't do it at all."

    That seems to be the overworked teacher's situation in a nutshell. Teachers desperately need informed, moral leadership that helps them think about their craft.

    In the same book, when Cromwell, in conversation with Ann Boleyn's father about the need for her to leave the marriage to Henry so Henry will be free to "selected another lady":

    So you rethought your position. As one does. . . .

    Boleyn says, "But our land? Our offices of state? I could continue to serve the king as Lord Privy Seal surely. . . ."

    Cromwell goes to Henry, "Thomas Boleyn sees his way. He is only anxious to retain his good name with Your Majesty."

    That's this NCTE series in a nutshell-- accommodate to Power.

    The essay below does not mention the Common Core; its context is larger-- speaking to what fiction does for the reader. It is stunning that Rotarians are offered this critical insight--while NCTE offers an accommodation to Power, promising teachers they need not lose their estates to a corrupt Common Core,

    by Frank Bures

    For years, a giant paper brick sat on my shelf. Its spine read The Count of Monte Cristo. I avoided taking it down because I had other things to do. It clocked in at over a thousand pages of small print -- almost half a million words. It hung like a millstone around the neck of my cultural conscience. It was one of the dreaded "classics" that I should have read long ago but never did.

    This was easy to justify. After all, how could a nearly 200-year-old tale of intrigue set in revolutionary France relate to my world of computers and space tourism and YouTube cat videos? I had other books to read, about real things, like how to organize my time.

    Then one day, for reasons I can't recall, I took the book off the shelf, started reading, and got hooked. I read page after page. Hours flew by. I would set it down, and whenever I encountered some unpleasant task, I'd find myself reaching for it again. The world around me disappeared as the count and his elaborate web of plans came alive. Eventually, I would reemerge and fret over the time Iâd wasted. I had deadlines to meet, like the one for this column. I had bills to pay and a business to run. What could a made-up story have to do with that?

    Everything, according to cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley. "I think lots of business schools are realizing that being able to understand other people is important, and that business is essentially a relational thing,â he told me when I called him at his office in Toronto.

    "What we've found," he went on, "is that reading more fiction enables you to understand other people better. Fiction is about exploring a range of circumstances and interactions and characters youâre likely to meet. Fiction is not a description of ordinary life; it's a simulation."

    Oatley and his colleagues have performed several experiments that show how this works. In one study, they separated fiction readers from nonfiction readers and measured their social perceptiveness. The fiction group scored better at interpreting facial expressions and social cues. They also were less socially isolated and had more social support than nonfiction readers.

    The obvious question is whether those who are already more socially adept read more fiction, or whether fiction makes them that way. To try to sort this out, Oatley's colleague Raymond Mar asked people to read either an essay or a short story from the New Yorker, then gave them all two tests -- one social, one logical. Both groups did equally well on the logic test, but the fiction readers did better on the social one, suggesting that the fiction was improving their social acumen. As Oatley put it to me, "If youâre going to fly a plane, you'd best spend some time in a flight simulator.â

    In 2005, professors Warren Bennis and James OâToole lodged a complaint in the Harvard Business Review about the world of business education, which they said had become too enamored of the "scientific model."

    "Though scientific research techniques may require considerable skill in statistics or experimental design," they wrote, "they call for little insight into complex social and human factors and minimal time in the field discovering the actual problems facing managers."

    The two argued that business schools were leading people to become divorced from the real, complex world, where they often must make decisions without all the facts. They also implied that this focus on the cold-blooded, quantifiable side of business was one factor behind the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Andersen. A few years later, those scandals would look like dime-store thefts compared with the global meltdown, caused in part by that same focus on numbers and formulas to the exclusion of all else.

    Bennis and O'Toole called on business schools to emulate Stanford professor James March, who taught a famous course on leadership using another door-stopping classic: War and Peace.

    As Oatley writes: "History, [Aristotle] argued, tells us only what has happened, whereas fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations and give us insights into ourselves and other people."

    By letting us see how people interact and by shoring up our ability to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling, fiction lets our brains try out new perspectives, which helps us understand the minds of those around us. Oatley has shown in his experiments that fiction "measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves."

    Reading fiction is not some frivolous, time-wasting pursuit. It is a flexing of our social muscle.

    It would be a gross oversimplification to say that having more fiction readers on Wall Street would have prevented the financial crisis. But in our technophilic era, it's worth thinking about social smarts. As Bennis and O'Toole wrote, "The problem is not that business schools have embraced scientific rigor, but that they have forsaken other forms of knowledge."

    I finally did finish The Count of Monte Cristo (and this column). It was a satisfying book. As I put it back in its place on the shelf, my eye drifted to other books. Hmm, I thought, The Great Gatsby I remembered almost nothing about it from my high school reading. The book wasn't very long. I eyed the pile of work on my desk.

    "Do I have time to read this?" I asked myself.

    But maybe a better question is: "Do I have time not to?"

    — Frank Bures with Ohanian comment
    The Rotarian
    March 03, 2013

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