Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Engaging with diverse people and perspectives is among the most exciting and valuable opportunities available to college students. Facing ideas and opinions that differ drastically from one’s own makes attending a big university like the University of Maryland unique and exciting. Learning to navigate and understand those differences, though, is something else entirely.
Reading books fosters creativity and critical thinking. It challenges the reader to consider perspectives and experiences far beyond their own, creating both empathy and understanding. In recent years, some within universities have complained that students are unable and unwilling to finish both assigned and individual reading, as the arguments in many texts are “too complex” for students to fully understand. Although reading can be a challenge, given the time constraints facing college students, its power and value are profound.
In a 2011 Scientific American Mind article, psychologist Keith Oatley explored how reading fiction helps readers understand people. “The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view,” he writes. “The emotional empathy that is critical to our day-to-day relationships also enables us to picture ourselves living as the characters do when we read fiction.”
Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano echo this sentiment in their research, proving that reading literary fiction enhances readers’ ability to understand the emotions of other people. These studies illuminates the power of reading; no other type of learning both challenges and fosters growth in this way.
This raises the question: Why should already busy college students pay attention to this? Reading and understanding the narratives, thoughts, opinions and experiences of others challenge the existing headspaces we all occupy. The utility of learning through empathy isn’t limited to a major or field of work.
Our emotional health and capacity for understanding is hard to measure, but it’s no less important than technical skills, such as writing or argumentation. Widespread differences in opinion, experience, resources and power deeply inform our social and political climate and underscore our collective empathy deficit while simultaneously magnifying the need for understanding.
Although reading is by no means the sole answer to the seemingly unending list of problems in the world, it is worth recognizing that solutions can just as readily spring from empathy and love as from logic and order. Perhaps by taking time out of our busy schedules to read for a couple hours a week, we could begin understanding the experiences of those around us, as well as the differences that define our society.
Writer James Baldwin’s argument for reading echoes this sentiment: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
As young people learning how to navigate change and difference in a turbulent world, reading is not only something we should strive to do — it is imperative.
Sarah Riback is a sophomore English and sociology major. She can be reached at email@example.com.