Empathy as One of Literature’s “Goods”

If you pay attention to the digest news blurbs that flow around the Internet and clutter our mental worlds these days, you might have caught various announcements of studies that prove that readers of fiction rate very highly on “empathy scales.” These tests measure the ability of an individual to understand the feelings and attitudes of other people, broadly known as social acumen. We probably take this premise for granted over in the Liberal Arts building, which houses not just English but our sister departments in the Humanities (History, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, Philosophy). What’s interesting is that some of the studies use as a “control” a group of individuals who read more expository non-fiction than narrative fiction, and it turns out that “reading” in general does not cultivate empathy: readers of fiction scored much higher than readers of nonfiction in social acumen. The studies were conducted by a team that allowed a psychologist, novelist, and literary theorist, Keith Oatley, to work with a cross-disciplinary team of scientists, headed by Raymond Mar, to design studies that attempt to account for the specific ways fiction cultivates empathy. (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/chaning_our_minds). A key factor is apparently the ability to enter into a simulated world in a comprehensive way, to be “sucked into” a narrative, one of the fundamental pleasures of reading that so often draw us to the study of literature. And of course, many readers take a keen pleasure from engaging with the characters, who simulate—in admittedly dynamic, exaggerated, and intentionally distorted form, from time to time—the human beings about whom our brains are primed to be curious. The study found that nonfiction reading, generally lacking such a “peopled” environment, does not allow us to cultivate those social simulation skills to the same extent. (See, among many other papers, “Bookworms vs. Nerds,” 2006: http://www.yorku.ca/mar/papers.html).

While humanists typically respond to such studies with something like self-congratulation or utter mystification as to why one would need to study something so obvious, I’d argue we increasingly need a new vocabulary to describe the importance of reading literature. For example, to see the study as obvious might suggest we do not recognize how rare such sustained, absorptive attention is in our present cultural climate, which rather encourages rapid-fire response that tends to fall back on existing beliefs and values. Despite the theoretical access to a world-wide community dizzying in its diversity, we tend to fall back on the “like-minded” folks with whom we already share a system of values. Empathy—the real, hard, and life-changing kind that challenges what we know about ourselves—requires a certain courage, and literature has historically been a powerful tool in cultivating that courage.

In literature we find a means to “simulate,” as our cognitive scientists tell us, the forms of life and the forms of feeling of people we have never met, and can never meet. Through that encounter, clothed in language that dazzles our mind and tickles our brain’s creative chemistry, we grow a whole new set of cognitive muscles, become more capable, more capacious, and yes, more empathetic with our fellow human, and non-human, beings. In a world of hurry and haste, rush and rash action, the slow, patient attention required to read and think with a great author offers us more than a respite, but a survival skill that sharpens our minds to be our best social selves. In a culture in which we have been seduced into adopting a pernicious notion of life as a good to be consumed, literature offers the goods in a much fuller sense: an inexhaustible supply of rich questions to be pursued, rich experiences to be drawn upon, that do not merely affirm what we already know, but tell us something new about the world in which we live.

We don’t need science to tell us why we love literature; but we can use this science as a way of re-thinking what that love might mean, and how that love might grow. Our students, our alumni/ae, and our faculty are engaged in an ongoing social experiment, one that is at least 3,500 years old, of shaping imaginative worlds out of words. To keep that experiment vital, we’ve got to keep reading, and telling our story about the power of the written word to the wide, wide world.

If you want to share your own story about the way reading and writing literature has helped to shape your life, post a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

Yours from the margin of the book—
Ashby Kinch
Associate Chair / Director of Graduate Studies

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4 Responses to Empathy as One of Literature’s “Goods”

  1. @Ashby. I think a new vocabulary regarding the importance of books necessitates an investigation into the vocabulary we currently have. How do we, if we’re aware of it, attempt to persuade undergraduates of the importance of books currently? And how are our appeals falling short? It would seem that the politics of schooling, technology, popular culture, and rhetorics/valorization of neoliberalism have somewhat blockaded and/or trivialized our efforts and appeals. In teaching, I’ve noticed that empathy doesn’t carry a tremendous amount of currency or esteemed capital in the minds of millennials. Just yesterday, after having students reflect on the merits of critical reciprocity, thinking, and empathy, they told me they’d rather have a class that, in their words, “just teaches them how to write personal statements, resumes and cover letters. That would be more useful” In this regard, if we esteem that students today view education as more of a necessary consumer good than an institution of higher learning intended to cultivate higher forms of reasoning, engaged citizenry and overall empathy, does our new vocabulary become akin to meeting the demands of our students imagined “real world,” and the economies of reading and writing attached to it? If so, a new vocabulary regarding the importance of books might run counterintuitive to what they help cultivate: an aggressive, neoliberal lexicon intended to persuade students of the “use-value” and marketability of reading.

    Or, is some dude just gonna publish the next piece of garbage that effectively sums of what I’ve written above with a crappy oversimplified title: “Well Read, Well Employed: Why Reading Really Matters.”

    • montkinch says:

      It might be oversimplified, but that hypothetical title actually has a fair amount of punch: there have been recent employment studies that suggest humanities majors have better long-term career prospects than practical and applied degrees, including of the ones that have gotten a lot of attention in Montana lately (engineering, in which are good friends in Bozeman have a monopoly, but also in business). The first decade of post-degree employment shows a relatively wide salary gap, but that closes over time and eventually the humanities surpass engineering and business. The model here is emphasizing intellectual depth, including truly important long-range life-skills–and “empathy,” when it occurs in the context of what is known as “social intelligence,” is absolutely crucial. There are a lot of “politics” lined up in your claim, but I suspect the most powerful–if unseen–force in that list is the neoliberalism you distrust the most, which must subtend, for example, the way the popular culture manifests itself, and the way new forms of technology are bent toward “production” (of goods, of information, and of knowledge). But of course knowledge production is a complex phenomenon, and no -ism has universal power and reach. But back to your initial point: I don’t think we really have a current vocabulary. I don’t think we are making appeals? I’d love to hear what others think about this: what is the dominant “appeal” humanists are making for the “good” of reading literature? Is there no one dominant appeal but a range of them? If so, what are they? Reading rates are down, and people like to gnash teeth about this, but that’s been going on for five decades, so recent cultural changes may be more “visible,” but are by no means responsible for that deeper change. We can blame neoliberalism all day, but what are we doing? What should we be doing?

      • (that reply rocked Kinch!)

        I agree that transparency within cultural changes can’t wholly be blamed for deeper changes in the overall decline of reading, or that committed skepticism of neoliberalism won’t get to any probable solution and/or useful appeal. The “politics” laid out, as should have been mentioned, speak to an interconnected institutional dilemma as to why students don’t read or register for English: School itself.

        We often forget that the majority of students outside our discipline share a distaste for reading and the discipline of English due to English classes, least on a compulsory level, “ruining reading.” Whether due to the corporatizing affects of education that have, for the past decade, condensed reading and accountability to be measured through pop-quizzes and tests (thus diminishing finding real value in the act itself through pointed and critical dialogue), or bad teaching, schooling has cultivated a mentality that equates reading, at least within the institution, with nothing more than busy work.

        In responds to your question, I feel dislocating apathy towards reading could mean embracing the ideological platforms, as you laid out above, that carry mass appeal with our intended audience. We can merit the use of reading in relation to real results and exigencies: case studies, potentials for employment, economic longevity in various marketplaces, real gain, marketable skills, democratic/social capital. A shift in language and appeal can result in a shift of greater proportions. As with any rhetorically sound appeal, we need to stop disregarding the need for evidence to effectively warrant our claim that reading is important beyond it just “being important,” as if the foundations of our students prior educations should have made this point by now. Sound appeals must have their fingers to the pulse, which can mean contending with what they’re distrustful of. And as you said, even an oversimplified title, if we’re willing to branch out beyond the lavish comforts of knowing what appeals to those within our discipline, can have “punch” to it. So why not use that as a starting point?

        There’s a reason my next class is focusing on economies of reading and writing. Our appeals have to be pointed towards what’s appealing, and that means embracing what we find unappealing at times. Like you, I’m also curious as to what people think about this. Is this a sound approach, or might we do more harm than good?

  2. mind the typo: *response

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