Using Literature and Film to Generate Empathy in Students

Using Literature and Film to Generate Empathy in Students
by Michael Buchanan

In Star Trek IV, Spock is asked multiple academic questions by a computer. Of course, he gets them all correct. The next question is, “How do you feel?” and Spock is stumped. His mother tells him, “You’re part human, Spock. Don’t ever forget your emotions.” I mention this scene as indicative of how during the last couple of decades, society, and specifically, education has been transformed into a world where emotion and empathy often have become victims of statistics and bottom lines. So, why are we surprised that bullying continues to be an issue? With that said, there is an accessible and proven tool not utilized near enough to help develop empathy and affect behavior—stories. In today’s world, that often translates into literature and film.

I believe our journeys are influenced by the stories we read and watch. I remember reading Charlotte’s Web when I was young. I cried. I watched Old Yeller die. And I cried. In my teens, I came across the movie To Sir With Love and I am convinced that film helped push me to become a teacher. As I grew up in the South during the 1950s and 60s, reading To Kill a Mockingbird inserted a different viewpoint into my youth. These stories and others allowed me to see the world through eyes other than my own. I know I am better for it.

From King Arthur to Atticus Finch to Forrest Gump, we love characters that inspire us to be our best. We cheer for the underdog and want their perseverance to become our own. But if a book and/or film are only dissected for their academic and SAT merit, are we missing an opportunity in school and at home to speak to the story’s emotional connection to a student’s life? Well, yes, we are.
Whatever the situation in which you interact with young people, find stories that allow you to ask, “How does this make you feel?” “What would you do in that situation?” and “How could someone else have changed the outcome?” Every author of fiction has created a world in which the reader or viewer becomes emotionally invested. Use that to help young people see their own world through the eyes of a stranger and it will change them; empathy will increase. Like Atticus said, “You never really know a man until you get inside his skin and walk around in it.” Those words were said by a character, in a book and in a movie, but those words are the essence of empathy.

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