Can Fiction Save Democracy?
By many accounts this is the most contentious presidential election ever. There seems to be genuine fear that our democratic system of government, built on the ideals of the rule of law, an honorable and peaceful political process, and the ability of elected leaders to compromise in the face of difficult decisions, has devolved into warring camps on constant attack. These camps then use a variety of media outlets, which often seem more like political arms of the dueling parties rather than journalists bent on informing the public, to push their point of view down our throats.
How are teachers to respond to this? Our educational system was built on the ideal that a thriving democracy depended on an informed, educated citizenry. What is our responsibility as teachers in the face of the growing polarization of the parties and the overwhelming amount of propaganda parading as information bombarding our students?
Some educators are arguing that what we need is to help children develop news literacy. The News Literacy Project defines news literacy as the ability to discern between reporting that seeks to present information fairly, accurately and contextually from reporting that is rooted in opinion, rumor and disinformation. You can learn more about the news literacy approach from The News Literacy Project web site and the Center for News Literacy, both of which are developing lesson plan ideas for teachers.
News literacy is a worthy and necessary goal, of course, and it has the advantage of slipping nicely into place alongside the Common Core State Standards' call for the reading of more nonfiction text in school and for the critical analysis of that text. But I would like to focus on one way we can address the threat to democracy that may not be as obvious, and that seems to be downplayed in the Common Core, but is nonetheless vital if our country is to survive. I want to suggest that reading fiction is the best hope for our current and future democracy.
Why fiction? I believe that our current state of political affairs is the result of an increasing inability to see another person's point of view as legitimate. I am talking here about empathy. The ability as the songwriter Joe South put it, to "walk a mile" in the other guy's shoes. Our increasing isolation as a Russ on Reading: Can Fiction Save Democracy?: