Last week, I reviewed a new book, Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Dr. Francis Su. Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to facilitate a conversation with him. One of the observations I’m thinking about from his presentation was that we often talk about math in terms of educational success and job skills. Rarely do we talk about how math answers to deep human desires and cultivates the virtues that enable us to flourish. It occurs to me that we often talk about reading in similar ways to math: important to educational success and good jobs.
No question that this is true. But I wonder if that is all we focus on, we miss some of the things that foster flourishing readers–children and adults who not only can read, but find that reading makes us more fully human. Reading connects to deep human desires and cultivates virtues, as does math.
“Tell me a story.” Human beings are story-shaped creatures. We love stories–hearing them, telling them, living them and making sense out of our lives through stories. Some of the very best stories have been written down in books, and we often find ourselves within those stories.
Reading fosters imagination. The words on the page become images in our minds, so powerful and real, that we are often disappointed that movie adaptations are not nearly as good as the story we’ve imagined. Imagination enables us to envision what is and what could be, and to capture the imaginations of others.
I learn to empathize with those whose experiences I may not have shared. I am neither a woman nor a person of color or a resident of any number of countries. I will never fully understand the experience of any of these. But reading their narratives with a openness to their lived experience can help me understand a little better, or at least show me how much I don’t know, which is also progress.
Reading builds human connection, whether between a parent and child, or two friends who discover they both like a particular writer or series of books and love to talk about them together. Sometimes our differences in taste are interesting. Why someone liked something that left us cold or vice versa can be offer insight into ourselves or others.
Sometimes we have genuine questions about something we just don’t understand, whether it is the history of our home town, how to repair our car, or the fabric of the cosmos. Reading can enrich our understanding of our world, and empower us to engage more effectively with it.
Reading causes us to reflect on the human condition. What is admirable? What is despicable? And what kind of person do I want to be? How have people faced adversity? What makes the difference between those who become bitter and those who become better?
And lest we get too serious, reading can be fun. Silly rhymes can make us laugh. Stories can amuse us and bring us joy.
I wonder whether in the press to pass standardized reading tests, our children may miss the opportunity to discover these humanizing aspects of reading, that also make reading deeply satisfying. I also can’t help but wonder if parents and educators who are in touch with these deeply human longings and weave them into their practice will educate more highly motivated readers.