June 11, 2013, by Emma Thorne

Why is everyone so annoyed with me?

A recent opinion piece by a Nottingham academic in the New York Times on whether literature can help us to become better human beings has sparked fierce debate across the internet. Professor Gregory Currie, of the Department of Philosophy, looks at the arguments for and against and why his editorial has caused passions to run high.

My op-ed piece in the New York Times caused a great many people to be upset. So upset, it seems, that many of them failed to read what I said. I argued that if, like many people, you think that great literature educates and civilizes us, you ought to be interested in the evidence for its civilizing and educative effect. I suggested that there is surprisingly little evidence. Among the more than five hundred commentaries accumulating on the NYT blog (see also, Time, Christian Science Monitor, etc), many suggest that I had the sinister motive of undermining the humanities as university subjects; others suggested that I saw no value in literature.

Arguments, not motives

Now even if that were true, it would be a good idea for people to consider my arguments, and not merely my motives—you can’t make arguments go away by suggesting that the arguer has bad motives. But as it happens I was not arguing that literature has no value; even if it were proven that it does not educate or civilize us I would see lots of value in it—just not that particular value. But this is clearly a subject on which feelings run high, and maybe that’s a good thing—I’d worry about living in a society where people simply did not care about literature.

Of all the commentaries perhaps the most interesting came from a psychologist at Toronto who I have known for years, Keith Oatley. To his great credit, he and his group of researchers at Toronto have been experimenting for some time to determine the effects of literature. He and I disagree about the result. You can see that this debate has got slightly personal by going to this blog. I wish Oatley well in his endeavors.

Surprising effects

Why wouldn’t we accept the little evidence there is available? Here are a couple of reasons. Lots of these studies test the effects of reading fictional stories immediately after the reading. Now we know that you can get all sorts of surprising effects on people immediately after exposing them to some stimulus. If you ask people to “imagine a professor” for a few minutes, they will tend to do better on a trivial pursuit test than they otherwise would. Does imagining a professor make you more intelligent? Probably not. We know that you can make people walk more slowly by exposing them to old-age related words (“grey”, “bingo”, etc). Does exposure to these words make you older? Probably not. People who are given a short piece of fiction to read seem to do better on certain tests of empathy when taken immediately after reading. Does reading fiction make you more empathic? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

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