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George Eliot & reading novels as education for a graduate attribute

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is an unfinished note about George Eliot's argument that novels (fiction) are an education in "sympathy": in our ability to feel with and for other people. (Or possibly, in developing our "theory of mind", as some psychologists might put it.)

Keith Oatley not only took this seriously, but (with collaborators and students) has published some psychology experiments trying to test the theory.

Ursula Le Guin has perhaps extended this line of thought in some of her essays. Particularly by articulating things about imagination; why that is central to human thinking and being; and how novels and stories in general in effect allow children and adults to learn about life beyond their past experience, by thinking about how life might be, could be, .....

George Eliot's argument

"The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies." [George Eliot]

George Eliot articulated her argument in an essay "The natural history of German Life".
The essay is a review of, or commentary on, two books by W H Riehl (1855/6) Die Bürgerliche Gesellschaft and Land und Lutte

Quick access
Ways to access this essay include:

References for citing

The extract (6 pages) consists of two passages (pp.51-56 & 71-72) from the full essay (30 pages).

Ursula Le Guin's extension to George Eliot's argument

It's not clear that Le Guin was explicitly aware of Eliot's argument, though many things she says are largely aligned to it; and in one or more respects, she adds to it in the essays in this book:
Ursula K. Le Guin (2004) The wave in the mind. Talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination (Boulder, Co: Shambhala)
  1. "Fact and/or/plus Fiction" p.127 ff.
  2. "The operating instructions" p.206 ff.   long excerpt
  3. "A matter of trust" p. 223 ff.
  4. "The writer and the character" p. 235 ff.
All these relate to Eliot's view of the nature, importance, and educative value of writing novels. But in the second of the four listed above, Le Guin adds two points.
a) Firstly, how imagination is vital to people; and indeed that we cannot live properly if we cannot imagine (and so perhaps choose to bring about) things which we haven't yet experienced. I would say that to formulate a plan means imagining a state of affairs which is false, a fiction; and then acting to turn this fiction into fact; and that this is a central part of living, at least as a human.
b) Secondly (as I myself might put it), there are things we cannot afford to learn from experience because they are too damaging, and/or things we generally only do once in life. So we must understand them in advance, imaginatively. She ends the essay with this: "The reason literacy is important is that literature IS the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we're visiting — life."

Enlarging the mind, or learning to manipulate people?

ToM ("Theory of Mind") is simply tracking what other's know, for both your own
and sometimes their benefit.

High-functioning psychopaths understand how others feel very well, but don't
feel any fellow-feeling any more than a predator or a surgeon does.

Eliot on the other hand, is arguing about expanding one's understanding more
fundamentally: coming to understand feelings — and so life —
that are new to you.

Is this a kind of graduate attribute?

Obviously reading novels is not a graduate attribute in the usual sense that it is something which few have before they enter HE, but all should have (regardless of their discipline) when they leave.

However it is quite like graduate attributes in that: it is something usually done without the intention to self-improve; which the person may not be aware of having acquired; yet which has, if Eliot and Oatley are right, a deeply educational personal effect: i.e. beneficial and widely applicable across many contexts.

Susan Sontag


Susan Sontag (2005) "At the same time ... (the novelist and moral reasoning)" English Studies in Africa vol.48 no.1 pp.5-17 doi: 10.1080/00138390508691327

Keith Oatley and others have done academic psychological research along these lines

Keith Oatley (also here: news flashes;   staff page) on how reading novels is an education of one's emotions and understanding of emotions. The following refs are an arbitrary selection, and in no way are complete or up to date: they might at best get you going on the topic. They are listed in reverse chronological order, NOT alphabetic by author.

Learning is painful; so novels must/may be painful too

"If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn in ways you do not want to learn".

[Doris Lessing, from a letter replying to a reader who had been seriously disturbed by reading one of her novels. Quoted in Alan Yentob's "Imagine" TV programme on Doris Lessing, broadcast Tues 27 May 2008, 10:35pm on BBC1]

Bugs, more to do

Actually read the extract carefully. Types of ToM Mind contents: all K. of world IS shared info/percep goals, tastes, values differ too Perceiving emos ...

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