Some educators are beginning to worry that the wired generation is going to give up serious reading altogether. Judging from our experience here at St. John’s, the future of reading is not at risk. Our students prove every day that it’s perfectly possible to be fully plugged in and at the same time to be absorbed by the greatest books ever written. And that’s a good thing, because the art of reading is critical to our freedom and our happiness.
In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass explains how he came to understand the key to the slaveholders’ power over their slaves. At the age or seven or eight, he was sent by his master in rural Maryland to become a house slave for the family of a relative. Soon after arriving, the mistress of the house began to teach him the alphabet, and then the spelling of simple three- and four-letter words. At this point, her husband discovered what she was doing. He forbade his wife to continue. It was illegal and unsafe, he said, and moreover it would only do harm to the boy. Indeed, learning would ruin him.
It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.
This outburst was a revelation to Douglass.
These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it.
The ability to read was the secret of slavery. The minds of slaves must be kept in darkness. They must not know the thoughts of others, must not understand the arguments by which their masters establish and hold power over them, must never be able to entertain the idea that slavery could be unjust. They must not be able to partake of the free flow of thought that passes from person to person in print. For who knows what insubordinate notions might be put into their minds by some far-off philosopher or political agitator?
Douglass ingeniously taught himself to read. Through reading, he discovered that there is no justification for slavery, made his escape from the South, and began to fight for abolition.
Douglass’s story is just one example of the power of reading to enlighten both the head and the heart. Recent research has shown that the ability to identify and understand the subjective states of other people is enhanced by reading literary fiction. (See David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano’s 2013 article “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in Science.) Through an ingenious series of tests, the authors were able to show that reading fiction is the cause of increased aptitude at understanding others, and not that those who were good at understanding others preferred reading fiction.
Even larger claims have been made for the enlightening power of reading. Both Stephen Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and Michael Shermer in his book The Moral Arc show how violence has decreased significantly among human beings, especially in the centuries since the beginning of the Enlightenment, when the possibility of widespread literacy came into being. Serious reading of all types of difficult material seems to be correlated with facility at abstract reasoning, which is in turn correlated with a propensity for less violence. And one would think that those who spend less time fighting have more time to devote to reading. This seems like an exceedingly propitious positive feedback loop.
So it is a very good thing that the wired generation seems to be retaining its love of reading, maintaining the advantages that are gained from understanding well the minds of others, and continuing the virtuous circle that has been spiraling toward greater peace for centuries.
This essay originally appeared on SignPosts for Liberal Education (March 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission.