In a seminal essay first published in 1988, educator Emily Style argued that coursework should serve as both a window and a mirror, enabling students to look into the lives of those who are different from them and to see themselves reflected in the experiences of those who are similar.
That concept similarly applies to much literature and storytelling, says University of Redlands English Professor Heather King, as the study of language through narratives helps readers understand people, events, ideas, cultures, and even their own identity.
As a window, narratives help readers build a habit of empathy. “If you never put yourself in that position, it’s a difficult imaginative leap to think about things from someone else’s viewpoint,” King says. “You can, in effect, train yourself to make that leap easily; every time you open the cover of a book, you’re in another world, another perspective. If you’ve developed the ability to move easily between many viewpoints, I think you do carry that over into your day-to-day life.”
As a mirror, literature and other stories help readers make sense of their own struggles, wrestle with moral choices, and expand their notion of what might be possible for someone like them.
When a work is simultaneously a mirror and a window, it can spark powerful learning experiences, says King, recalling a discussion revolving around Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña. The book’s protagonist, Danny, feels stereotyped as the only brown-skinned student at his private school. When he goes to live with his father’s Mexican family, he’s equally out of place, unable to speak Spanish and uncomfortable with the special treatment he’s given for presumably being college-bound.
King notes some students in her classroom said Danny’s story mirrored their own experience as members of immigrant families and the first to attend college. Others without the immigrant journey in their recent family history talked about how moved they were to think about what the character was negotiating as he tries to figure out who he is, where he belongs, and how to create an identity.
With intimate classroom experiences and a tightknit community, Redlands students trust each other enough to have the kind of open, exploratory conversations about literature that result in greater understanding, King says.
The essay by Style also advocates for multiculturalism. Although de la Peña’s novel might demonstrate just the kind of voice Style had in mind, King says a reader’s relationship to literature isn’t defined solely by race or culture.
Consider Jane Austen’s books, set in an all-white, upper-class world of late 18th-century England. King, an Austen scholar, says the writer dealt with issues surrounding money, social status, and the power dynamics between men and women that still resonate today around the world. As proof, she points to the many modern adaptations of Austen’s work, including Unmarriageable by Sonah Kamal, which reimagines Pride and Prejudice in 21st-century Pakistan.
That the challenges of a Jane Austen character could mirror those of a contemporary Pakistani woman doesn´t surprise King any more than it would have surprised Style.
“The delightful truth is that sometimes as we hear one another out, glancing through the window of their humanity, we can see our own image reflected in the glass of their window,” Style wrote. “The window becomes a mirror! And it is the shared humanity of our conversation that most impresses us even as we attend to our different frames of reference.”
Learn more about studying English at the University of Redlands.