How do we learn the big stuff? The stories that shape lives and make society work? A conversation between a president and a writer can illuminate:

1. “The most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels,” President Barack Obama told Marilynne Robinson, one of his favorite writers. “It has to do with empathy ... the world is complicated and full of grays.”

2. Novels shaped how this president and constitutional law professor see his “role as citizen.”

3. Stories powerfully transmit a culture’s values and social scripts (shaping our moral and emotional grammar). Indeed, the “human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”

4. But which stories matter? Is Obama’s novel-indebtedness common? Literary novels reach few — Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Housekeeping sold ~400,000 copies, whereas the world’s complicated grays in 50 shades topped 45 million. So what does shape citizens? Not civics classes (=24 percent effective).

5. Visual stories often trump novels by directly feeding our “hidden brain” learning system. This absorbs patterns utterly independently of anything uttered or read. And we’re more image-immersed than ever, e.g., six hours daily screen time (often not empathy-enhancing like novels).

6. Religion supplies shaping stories, Christianity for Obama and Robinson. But Christianity has also shaped all modern democracies by its championing of universal rights. The idea that “all men are created equal” wasn’t remotely self-evident until it was developed (over centuries of slow stumbling steps) from St. Paul’s belief that “there is neither slave nor free,” — neither male, nor female; all souls have equal status. Whether you believe in souls or not, that idea has had seismic earthly effects.

7. Even while separating church and state, America’s founders saw the need for something to shape citizens. John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people." Otherwise "avarice, ambition, revenge” and unbridled self-seeking competition would break the Constitution's “strongest cords."

8. Robinson decries “competition,” but Obama, “the competitor-in-chief,” loves it — e.g., in basketball. Perhaps sporting competitiveness could improve politics. Is gerrymandering fair play (or more like ball tampering)? Many leaders seek only to win the current game/vote/election, seemingly discounting the system’s long-term integrity and health. Few would want that in sports — why tolerate it in our governing games?

9. Economics (almost a math-masked religion) also supplies shaping stories. As do businesses through powerful visual rhetoric — commercially persuasive stories in advertising, TV, film, and video games.

10. The “American Dream” story, that hard work got you a good life, is faltering. That part of our citizenship story — our civic covenant — may need altering.  

11. Other big stories from economics, written in data, that dominate how we live also need revision. Competition doesn’t guarantee efficiency. Markets don’t always self-organize for desirable outcomes, or “fairly” reward merit. Much-needed logic often isn’t in “the numbers.”

What stories shape you? In your personal and civic roles?

Our beloved rights build on inalienable duties to what upholds them (communities, governments). America’s founders understood that story. History warns against elites that don’t.




Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions