Using Fiction to Teach Civic Empathy

By Tyler Pare, 8th Grade American History Teacher

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
5 min readFeb 6


The term “empathy” is not in short supply in the K-12 public educational space. Many school districts across the country have adopted social and emotional learning curricula or student honor codes that are predicated on fostering student empathy. My district has taken cues from the Choose Love program and has adopted the One Trusted Adult program to help students develop the tools needed to understand their own emotional complexities while extending empathy to others.

A Different Type of Empathy: Political Imagination

What I want to focus on in this essay are the consequences of a different type of empathy. A type of empathy that if cultivated in students, has far broader impacts on civic life for them as they mature into politically active adults. This type of empathy would allow students to step outside their own political interests and goals and consider the interests and goals of others with the same earnestness that they show their own.

Furthermore, such empathy would enable students to realize that they are part of a political community in which every person is entitled to the same rights and dignity that they are entitled to. The type of empathy I am referring to here is the development of political imagination. Given the current political climate, the cultivation of such empathy in students might seem aspirational or downright impossible. However, there are modalities that civic educators can put in place to begin such cultivation, albeit in its most incipient form.

Civic Empathy Throughout History

The need for the cultivation of political imagination as a form of empathy is not a nuanced thought in American political life. In fact, the first word of the Constitution tacitly implies the need for such empathy. In 1787, when Gouverneur Morris chose “We” as the first word of the Preamble, he did so to signify to the world that the experiment of American democracy was not a transient experiment of a single faction or noble class, but rather the deliberate undertaking of a people. Consequently, by making this his objective, he implied the need for a type of empathy that would allow the multiplicity of factions that existed in America at the time to see each other as a united civic body politic, i.e. a political community whose citizens could imagine the needs other citizens relative to their own needs.

Fast-forward 230 years and Morris’ implication could not be more relevant considering that our students are being raised on a steady political diet of vitriolic rhetoric and conspiracies that vilify opponents as the personification of evil and the end of America. One wonders what long-term consequences such a diet may have on the health of our democracy if our students are not given the chance to imbibe some form of civic nourishment in the form of cultivating their political imaginations. This nourishment is therefore the duty of the civics educator.

Using Fiction to Cultivate Civic Empathy

By cultivating a sense of political imagination, a civics educator should seek to restore our impoverished political rhetoric to Abraham Lincoln’s tone at the outset of the Civil War in his First Inaugural Address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

While politicians may not speak this way anymore, it might be possible to restore this level of empathy in our students by introducing them to reading fiction at a young age. Over the past 20 years, nonfiction literacy has been given the greatest amount of focus within the social studies classroom. After all, nonfiction literacy does lend itself well to the study of history. Countless studies demonstrate that by consistently reading nonfiction materials, students increase their career readiness skills. While reading nonfiction does help students build career readiness skills, it misses the mark on another civically important skill in need of development: imagination. This is why I not only promote nonfiction-related literacy skills in my classroom but fictional literacy skills as well.

There are also countless studies that show that students who consistently read fiction are more likely to develop a sense of empathy that is more nuanced and refined than those of their peers who do not consistently read fiction. This is because when reading fiction, students encounter entire worlds of complex characters with a wide range of emotional depth that they may have never encountered outside of reading a book. By reading about characters with complex emotions and challenges to overcome, students begin to empathize with characters and imagine the world through their eyes. Herein lies the civic value of having students read fiction in a social studies class. Yes, reading nonfiction will help students develop career readiness skills, but such skills will fall flat in a political community that has not had the chance to develop empathy. By reading fiction, students will develop the empathy needed to make the greatest possible use of their career readiness skills for the political community at large because they can imagine themselves in the position of another member of their community.

America is at a crossroads with its civic life. On one road exists venomous rhetoric that further isolates citizens from each other, weakening a collective sense of “We.” On the other road exists a chance to improve our empathy towards each other by making the civic education of our students a priority. Plato reminds us that language forms virtue. If we are to continue as the country we promised to be in the Constitution, a country that secures the blessings of liberty to its people, we must remember to imbue our political language with empathy to ensure that our virtue is not lost. This all starts with how we choose to educate our students. We must choose empathy in the classroom so that our students can learn to choose it in political life, and it all may start with a simple read of a popular fiction title.

Tyler Pare is in his 10th year as a history teacher and currently works at Hollis Brookline Middle School in Hollis, New Hampshire. Passionate about civic education, Tyler enjoys helping students make connections between their lives and American history. Always looking for his next academic journey, Tyler has begun to focus his career on making sure students understand the importance of their role as the next generation that will have their say in the actions of American government.

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