Losing humanities in education is propelling a deficit of empathy

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With devastating cuts disseminating higher education in the past several years, universities are struggling to balance their budgets, often with extreme measures.

At one University of Wisconsin regional campus, faculty are reeling over the decision announced this month to cut 13 academic majors, primarily in the humanities. The departments of English, history and the three foreign languages, along with their faculty, will be eliminated in the restructuring plan.

{mosads}The move is defended by campus administration as an effort to be more “nimble” in a “competitive environment.” The situation at the Stevens Point campus is not an isolated example, as SUNY Stony Brook can attest.


None of this should be surprising considering the current president’s moves to make huge cuts to arts and humanities funding.

This move away from the humanities could not come at a worse time. In an America where understanding the point of view of others and learning from our historical successes — and failures — is at a low point, the world is desperately in need of need a more humane perspective.

As a nation, we are slow to understand the perspective and motivation of others. We are suffering from a general lack of empathy — our unwillingness to understand the point of view of others different from ourselves. It is through the study of history and literature that we learn how others think, and feel and react. We learn what motivates them and how their difference impacts who they are and how they react. We see the worst sides of ourselves — and the best — through reading about others.

Working in a university that values personal growth, I regularly see evidence of faculty working with students to help them understand the situations and challenges others face.

One of our English faculty selected the theme of empathy for the grieving through reading and discussing literary works. She states that students are empathy-challenged “in a space of ambiguity.” One cannot have empathy when one has no perspective of the issues and emotions of the other.

Literature provides that perspective. Reading Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” for example, I learned the personal side of the class struggles of both the aristocracy and the masses in a way that personalized the French Revolution for me.

The depraved actions of Madame Defarge, knitting while watching the beheadings, and the self-sacrifice of Sydney Carton taking another’s place at the guillotine show us the good and evil of both the rich and the poor. As Carton expounds on his way to the guillotine, “I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” A lesson from literature that is certainly applicable today.

In my decades of teaching in higher education, I have had innumerable students express to me the impact of literature on their understanding of the world. One student emailed me that he was tired of reading about women’s points of view in the pieces we were assigned during one unit. When I asked him how he thought women felt reading only the perspective of white men, he was shocked — he had truly never considered this concept.

In another class, two young men came up to me at different times after we read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and told me the novel changed their lives. They simply had never considered the struggles and their impact on someone different from themselves.

After reading Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carry,” a book covering stories of soldiers during the Vietnam War, the class discussion revolved around the concept that these students had absolutely no idea how personally devastating it is to be a part of such mayhem.

One student, a Marine who had served in Afghanistan, told me later that he was so emotionally touched by the stories of the soldiers that he had trouble finishing the book; and hearing his classmates share their perspectives was cathartic for him. 

We cannot wait, however, until students reach higher education to begin working on heightening their awareness of others’ situations.

Learning the perspective of others, of making an effort to know how others live and the struggles they face is an important life lesson.

When then Sen. Barack Obama addressed the Northwestern University graduating class of 2006, he cited example of this country’s “empathy deficit.”  He told graduating students that we build progress by developing “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.”

Understanding the perspectives of others is a value learned from our study of the struggles of people throughout history. And through literature and great philosophers we understand the impact of those historical events on the individual. Yes, we need the humanities more than ever.

Carol Scheidenhelm, Ph.D., is director of the Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy at Loyola University Chicago and is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Tags Barack Obama Carol Scheidenhelm Education Empathy Higher education Humanities Literature

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