Changing Lives Through Literature part 5 of 5: Can literature change lives?

The following set of blog posts summarizes the work I have done with an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). My first post described CLTL, next were two interviews with former CLTL students, Ken, Sheila, and Veronica. This final post of the series, “Can literature change lives?” provides several empirical studies that appear to validate the ability of humanities education to assist individuals struggling through poverty and drug addiction—two major, interrelated factors in most crimes. Overall, these studies bolster the eponymous tenant of CLTL: that reading literature changes lives for the better.

The Clemente Course and Hope House

Reader Social issues such as crime and poverty go hand in hand, yet individuals affected by both are unique personalities. CLTL uses literature and writing to stimulate students’ minds and reduce their chances of reoffending. The overall goal is to use literature for social change. Beyond work with criminal populations, Earl Shorris’ Clemente Course in the Humanities has taken a similar approach to humanities education as CLTL. The Clemente course focuses on all urban poor rather than just criminal offenders. Instead of literature, the eight-month Clemente course teaches logic, art, history, and moral philosophy. According to Shorris, the intensive study of the humanities is an effective way to move people out of poverty and into community engagement and meaningful work.

Similarly, at Hope House, a California rehabilitation centre utilizes volunteer, female Stanford professors to teach classes in philosophy and the humanities to groups of fifteen to twenty female addicts and ex-convicts who have been placed in a residential drug and alcohol treatment program (The Hope House Scholars Program). This Clemente-derived course focuses on classic texts with an emphasis on political and social issues, borrowing much from the successful Clemente model. A study done by program founders Debra Satz and Rob Reich revealed that approximately seventy percent of the women who participated in this program remained drug free and out of prison, far better than the national average for rehabilitation programs.

Humanities in Perspective

In Portland, the Humanities In Perspective (HIP) Program has been offered to impoverished individuals for the past five years by the Oregon Council of Humanities in collaboration with Reed College. As a comparison group for the course, HIP was also introduced to a group of incarcerated inmates at a nearby medium-security correctional facility. Like Hope House, the HIP program follows the Clemente Course paradigm—in this case, a progression from ancient classics to twentieth century American literature.

In the Fall semester students read key ancient Greek works drawn from texts in history (Thucydides), philosophy (Aristotle & Plato), poetry (Tyrtaeus & Sappho), and drama (Sophocles & Euripides). In the Spring Semester readings are drawn from more contemporary texts including Emerson, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Martin Luther King, and Toni Morrison, exploring four central themes: knowledge and virtue, power and justice, love and desire, and social responsibility.

In 2005, the Portland group of urban poor and the incarcerated inmates completed pre-course and post-course surveys. The Portland group reported increased self-esteem, verbal abilities, and open-mindedness, while the incarcerated group reported increased desire for civic involvement, literary reading, and goal setting.

Can literature change Lives?

Changing Lives Through Literature was also the subject of an empirical research study (Jarjoura and Krumholz, 1998). This study compared a group of 32 former CLTL participants with a control group of 40 regular probationers. A follow-up analysis indicated that only 6 of the 32 men in the reading group (18.8%) were convicted of crimes after their experience in CLTL. In the control group, 18 of the 40 men (45%) had reoffended. According to these results, CLTL graduates were three times less likely to reoffend.

Currently, new versions of CLTL are being adopted by academic programs such as the English department at Curry College and the English department at the University of Rhode Island. Curry College is considering having their English majors intern with CLTL as a unique educational experience.

Further psychological Evidence

Research from the cognitive science of reading literature (alternatively called Cognitive Poetics or Empirical Studies of Literature) provides the important theoretical and empirical backdrop against which to set the effectiveness of programs of CLTL and the Clemente Program, potentially explaining why CLTL works.

Probably the most persuasive studies come from Professors David Miall (English) and Don Kuiken (Psychology) at the University of Alberta and Keith Oatley (Psychology) at the University of Toronto. Their collective research outlines how reading fiction allows us to script, or rehearse, scenarios that we do not normally encounter in our day to day lives. In doing so, reading allows for inner speculation about how we ourselves would react in the fictional situations characters face, causing readers to empathize with characters. Furthermore, the plot structure of fiction involves a surplus of cognitive activities like planning and imagining. All of these simultaneous cognitive activities lead to, as Miall and Kuiken state, “larger implications for the self”—which means that characters and plotlines transcend the experience of reading itself and simulate experiences that motivate readers towards self-change.

Oatley’s studies further this argument, his work demonstrates that engaging in fictional worlds improves our empathic abilities—that is, fiction reading was positively correlated with the ability to empathize with others. Fiction reading thus increases understanding of the necessary and appropriate social interactions of everyday life.

Ultimately, I believe Oatley and Miall’s work provides the psychological backdrop explaining how CLTL works: it offers disenfranchised readers the opportunity to enjoy and reflect on the emotional benefits of the reading experience, while also choosing to make more socially appropriate decisions in regarding their futures and their interactions with others.

In conclusion, I’d like to recognize an excellent new essay by CLTL facilitator, Dr Erin Battat, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s American Studies program. Please leave comments or read there other posts I’ve written for the CLTL blog, Changing Lives Changing Minds:

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

Has the Torch Been Passed? A Review of the 2008 Annual Conference

A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

5 thoughts on “Changing Lives Through Literature part 5 of 5: Can literature change lives?

  1. Words are amazing and when they’re strung together in a meaningful way, I believe they have the power to change individuals’ lives by engaging the imagination, igniting reflection and altering perspectives, and fueling change in people (even in the smallest sense).

    There is significance in your written words. Well done Al!


  2. Al, you remind me why I started grad school. This is the one of the more important kinds of work the academy can be doing, and I’m thrilled to see someone actively involved in it.

    Keep me posted as you learn more!


  3. Pingback: New Venture Graduates ! WSU | Mymspattymm's Blog

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