by Joseph Coulson, Ph.D.

A great many ills have beset the world and our country, our less-than-whole United States of America, and we find not least among our problems an alarming lack of empathy, as if somehow our abilities to reason and empathize were the casualty of an executive order. The current decline of empathy, a downward slope that began years ago, coincides with the decline of community arts programs, cultural organizations, and school curricula and college degrees focused on the humanities. But why has our culture kicked the humanities to the curb? Why do we often speak of empathy as if it were an impractical preoccupation? I can offer no short, easy answers to these questions, but certainly the humanities as a profession began to lose its heart and soul when we stopped talking about stories that matter.

Rather than maintaining the primacy of the story as the way to engagement and learning, we in the profession began questioning our methods and purpose, losing our direction while community and cultural organizations lost funding, college professors became obsessed with literary theory, state lawmakers and school officials aimed at teaching to the tests, and federal agencies legislated in favor of nonfiction as the primary emphasis of English instruction in elementary and secondary schools. The mantra became reading for content, for finding the argument of a text and summarizing it, as opposed to the close reading of imaginative literature which demands much weightier matters of analysis and interpretation. As a culture, we opened the door and greeted expository writing and basic journalism with open arms, and we left poetry, drama, and fiction—we left stories—at the curb.

Only in stories are we asked to look through the eyes of someone that may be very different from ourselves. Only in stories do we come to understand the motives of other people, their limitations and their humanity. Only in stories are we asked to figure out why something happened or why a character behaves in a particular way—feels loved or unloved, victorious or cheated, included or left out, privileged or discriminated against. My high school English teacher declared long ago, “To learn the facts and statistics of the Dust Bowl, read an article or an encyclopedia entry. But if you want to know how it felt, if you want to learn something about its human cost and its moral implications, then read The Grapes of Wrath.” Only in stories are we asked—even forced—to empathize with people and situations that we cannot otherwise know in the limited geography of our lives. Stories in every form, stories in every family, organization, and school, provide the training ground for empathy. The less we traffic in important stories, the more we lose our sense of community and a realistic understanding of our place in the world.

In the light of a new Presidential administration, we must advocate for a renewed allegiance to the humanities. We must advocate for funding, of course, letting our elected officials know that support for the humanities also supports the duties of citizenship and the functioning of representative government. But we must also demonstrate that both the reading and the discussion of imaginative literature, of diverse stories in all forms, provide an age-old means for cultivating and developing empathy. We in the humanities must argue for the primacy of the literary story and then demonstrate its power as an agent of change. Our advocacy should advance the belief that literature is vital to our nation’s survival and that to embrace a celebrated story with respect for its challenges and complexities is also to embrace empathy.

Photo credit: Melissa Hogan, via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Coulson is the President and Chief Academic Officer of Harrison Middleton University. He is the past president of the  Great Books Foundation.  Beyond teaching, his poetry, drama, and fiction have been widely published, including two novels, Of Song and Water and The Vanishing Moon, that translated into German and French. Joe studied at Wayne State University and the University of Oxford, and he holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from SUNY Buffalo.

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