Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Power of Life Histories: Moving Readers to Greater Acts of Empathy through Literature and Memoir

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Power of Life Histories: Moving Readers to Greater Acts of Empathy through Literature and Memoir

Article excerpt

"The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows."  --Sydney J. Harris 

Introduction

Although multiple interpretations of Harris' words abound, this paper argues that his quote aptly addresses dilemmas faced by literacy professors. How indeed might scholars and teachers use narrative, both literature and memoir as a way to "turn mirrors into windows?"

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. (Bishop 1990, ix)

Might not literature and narrative texts be seen as the perfect vehicle through which readers can explore the lives of others, informed by understanding of self? If the reader does no more than see himself reflected in the novel or short story, how can he fully enter authors' text worlds to understand others' perspectives? Understanding character solely through the reader's lens narrows and limits the possibilities of literature. This paper offers new ways to teach literature so that a reader can learn to look beyond himself to the realities of others. Literature and memoir become the reader's window into the broader human experience rather than a mere reflection of his own.

If one imagines for a moment real lives and real ways of making meaning of the world, the Life Histories of people offer valuable insights. They make meaning and help us to better understand the world through narrative and dialogue (Bruffee 1999; Rossiter 1999). Yet, this understanding must at first take on a personal cast, just as the seeing of one in a mirror. As people understand their lives in terms of stories, meaning making takes a narrative form (Bruner 1990), whereas shared meaning and authenticity are at the heart of dialogue (Bakhtin 1986). People relate their own life narratives through the filter of their memories and interpretive meanings. Anthropologists James Peacock and Dorothy Holland (1993) propose using the term life-focused to refer to the history that primarily addresses the factual events and subjective experiences of the subject. How the subject tells the story reflects the meaning the subject has made of his or her life experiences; life stories are also always contextual. Thus Life Histories enlighten the storyteller as he narrates personal experiences that lay bare his being. But the question remains: How do narrators shed their own perspective to wear that of others? Or is it possible to do so?

Life Histories constitute one way that readers can understand the nuances of characters, both fictive and real, and bring them to life in ways that is interesting, meaningful and accessible. Linde (1993) argues that Life Histories also show the complex interactions between characters and cultural contexts. Life Histories feature culturally defined landmark events in a life (i.e. birth, death, discrimination), make some sort of evaluative point about how characters want to be seen by their readers, and do not stand alone but are linked in a web to other stories (Linde 1993). Nieto (1992) further supports the possibilities of Life Histories, arguing for the importance of multicultural literature so that all readers may see their lives reflected in texts. She suggests that Life Histories can change the way readers look at the world by offering new perspectives and promoting appreciation for those different than self. These new understandings then give rise to critical inquiry and illuminate the human experience (Nieto 1992). Figure 1 presents the major characteristics of Life Histories:

Figure 1. … 
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