Inside Higher Education reports on a study showing that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those who graduated two or three decades ago. Here is a taste:
Are you often quite touched by things you see happen? Do you try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before you make a decision? When you see people being taken advantage of, do you feel protective of them?
If you are a college student or recent graduate, you are more likely to answer “no” to the above questions, which are excerpts from a University of Michigan test designed to measure the presence of empathy in people of different ages. What they found was disconcerting: College students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those who graduated two or three decades ago.
This is sad. Empathy is at the heart of civil society. Without empathy and its sister virtue, understanding, we are left with culture warriors screaming at one another in two-minute soundbites on cable television.
Empathy is also a virtue that is essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we understand all human beings as being created in the image of God, with inherent dignity and value, then such a belief should influence how we treat one another, even those with whom we disagree.
As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, and will be arguing in greater detail in a forthcoming book entitled “The Power to Transform: A Christian Reflection on the Study of the Past,” empathy is something that is best taught through the study of history.
Now some might say empathy is a dangerous thing. Those who learn to empathize are in danger of embracing the views in which they are trying to empathize with. For example, if a person tries to empathize with Hitler, he or she will become a Nazi. Empathy, according to this view, is just too risky.
While I understand this concern, I still think it is important to take the risk. Indeed , risk and wisdom are at the heart of liberal learning.
Tom Van Dyke says
I wonder if “education” these days serves to numb what natural empathies we do have, or if we have none, fails to inculcate them by making us into little Vulcans. CS Lewis, “Men Without Chests” in The Abolition of Man.
First “philosophy” I ever read, and it seems truer every day. [Also Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his better book, which puts empathy at the center of successful human society.]
Both are available free at those URLs. I often find myself going back to them.