A Study in Empathy


In my younger and more vulnerable years as a college English teacher, a student in my World Literature class asked why he had to take a General Studies literature course. Up to that time, I thought the truth was self-evident—literature was important in its own right. I gave him the best response that I knew: literature would broaden his horizons, make him better informed, deepen his critical thinking, make him heir to our cultural legacy, and even help him find a job.

“Working on my golf game,” he said, “would be a better use of my time finding a job than sitting in your class.”

I thought, In your case, son, that’s probably true.

But what I found disturbing about the young man’s comment wasn’t its effrontery, it was the knowledge that such sentiment was coming from the child of a fellow faculty member—from a child whom I would have thought inherently valued the many aspects of higher education because he grew up in it.

He was doomed, but in my case, I felt I was lucky. I remember the date and place and poet I was reading when at eighteen I knew that literature would be my life. I didn’t know then how or in what capacity, but I knew that literature would be my life (I was reading Wordsworth—General Studies homework).

I hope the young golfer has had a fulfilling career in business. Yet his observation is a point of departure for discussion: why read literature when time could be spent in more pragmatic pursuits—like fine tuning one’s putting game and networking in the nineteenth hole?

Over the years, I’ve thought about other answers. My mistake perhaps was to give a long-view answer to a short-view perspective. The student was interested in more immediate and pragmatic results. Some things never change: last week a student asked why Shakespeare just didn’t have Gertrude say that Ophelia drowned.

However, knowing literature is pragmatic—and has real-world implications. I’ve come to the conclusion that reading quality literature is a responsibility of membership in a democratic, pluralistic society—concomitantly, it is also one’s duty as a world citizen.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, the reviewer Nicholas Dames highlighted a conversation between the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson and President Obama in which the President observed: “When I think about how I understand my role as a citizen . . . the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays [and] that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they’re very different from you.”

The operative word in the President’s comment is empathy—projecting one’s personality into another’s personality to better understand that person. It is not a touchy-feely concept. In our country’s polarized political, social, and economic climate, “a deficit in empathy imperils a democratic culture, and . . . novels keep us entwined and engaged when we might otherwise drift apart in shrill and narcissistic self-certainty,” according to Dames.

One definition of a novel is an author’s attempt to represent a world—of characters, settings, and situations. A novel is multifarious and complex. The good novelists make sense of it all, or at least try to come to terms with it, and by novel’s end readers respond to this sense of resolution. For example, inGreat Expectations, Dickens introduces dozens of named characters, yet by the last chapter the lives of all those characters have been resolved in the context of Dicken’s narrative. It is a bittersweet book, but what adult has not looked back on his youth and wistfully revisited his own great expectations?

One reason totalitarian regimes as well as one-dimensional sects enact censorship is to restrict the message. There are real-world consequences to this restriction of other viewpoints, this segregation of empathy. In a The New Yorker article, “Exporting Jihad,” George Packer explores the reasons why many young Tunisian men have joined ISIS. One explanation he uncovers is their feeling of disconnectedness or abstraction from society: “Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought.”

It is frightening to consider that a deficiency critical thought (thinking about the pros and cons of an issue) in the study of literature, history, religion, art, or philosophy could be the cause why someone drops a book bag and puts on a suicide vest. There are plenty of examples of well-read radicals, but I daresay their motive was saving the world and not destroying it.

For the sake of our shared humanity, one of my favorite teachers of writing, John Gardner, urged his students to read deeply and widely:

No ignoramus—no writer who has kept himself innocent of education—has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one’s argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies.

Gardner goes on to say that the presence of books that have held up and the best of the new books primarily have universities to thank. Where else but in a university literature class such as we offer at TROY, in an assignment perhaps on Antigone, could people discuss the moral dilemma of obeying the laws of the state as opposed to the dictates of one’s conscience? The issue is particularly vexing because of Sophocles’ genius in which he presents compelling arguments favoring both points of view. Better to hash it out in the classroom rather than in a firefight.

So while others may putt away, I’ll continue to teach Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Rumi, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. There’s too much at stake not to.