Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part II)

In the numerous fields comprising that artistic and cultural field we call “the humanities,” we who self-identify as scholars must constantly be on the defense regarding our own choice of profession. An increasingly corporatized world sees banks encouraging ballerinas and actors to become engineers and botanists instead, and federal agencies such as the CBO actively suggesting reducing federal funding for the Arts and Humanities, since “such programs may not provide social benefits that equal or exceed their costs.”

This cacophony joins with countless other voices in our own lives: those cautioning us about the shrinking opportunities of the academic job market, who gently chastise us for dabbling in a passion instead of pursuing a career that will prove economically viable, and otherwise reminding us that the humanities are not where the dollars – or pounds or euros, among other forms of financial credit – lie. There is no Wall Street of literature, no actual stock market of philosophical ideas, and little funding to be found in dusty bookshelves and puzzling over words, ideas, and their meanings.

Why even bother?

As the old adage goes, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” A bastardized proverb, perhaps, with uncertain origins, and appropriated right and left – often by the political and ideological Left and Right – for various ends. The myth of linear progress haunts us with these lessons of the not-so-distant past. Especially in the awareness of unavoidable pitfalls, regressions, and obstructions in the hard-fought effort forward and upwards, we take into consideration the wisdom of looking over our shoulders and consulting voices that tell tales of suffering and horror never to happen again.

For those of us working in the fields of analyzing literature and encouraging critical thought, our reasons for choosing to engage with such materials on a day-to-day basis have long found ethical expression in empathy. We aim to broaden awareness of self and others, and to celebrate multicultural differences by considering multiple avenues of theoretical exploration. This is why we construct syllabi with an eye toward incorporating more writers outside the realms of canonical literature, the majority of these names belonging to women writers, and writers of color. For many of us teaching at the collegiate level, or in higher education in general, critiquing the norms of institutions, modeling thoughtful self-reflexivity, and teaching students how to close-read all goes hand-in-hand.

On some level, either personally or with boisterous confidence, we all wish to believe in our role to “Make America Smart Again.” Our faith in education fueled our optimism in a future defined by intelligence and inclusivity, and many a liberal-leaning Op-Ed piece declared the one advantage of Britain’s recent referendum to leave the European Union as both instruction and a tale of warning:

“One of the few good things about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is the rich curriculum of lessons it offers leaders and electorates in other democracies…

Across Europe and in the United States, politicians can either respond to these cries of protest or face something worse than Brexit.”[1]

Was such belief a stroke of overconfidence?

Following November 8th, with electoral results and statistics rushing in from all sides, bleak disappointment followed closely by crushing realization began to settle in. These gut-reactions mingled with irritation at the instantaneous, yet contradictory impulse to assign blame:

“Why Did College-Educated White Women Vote for Trump?” (The New York Times)

“Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working-Class” (New Republic)

“Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch” (The Washington Post)

Such was, and still is enough to shake one’s faith in purposeful education. In the face of all this, what is the point of what we teach? These are the questions to haunt us now: does the work of our lives actually take any root? Should intellectuals shoulder the blame of having morphed into snobbish cultural elites?

Does investment in efforts toward empathy really yield any ideological change?

merriamwebster

 

In the days and weeks that have followed the 2016 Presidential Election, attempting to navigate and teach in this new reality has proven unsettling. All of a sudden, we have swerved from the academic postmodern into a maelstrom of media-influenced misinformation, Twitter rants, and unprecedented threats against freedom of speech, critique,[2] and intellectual or creative expression.

Welcome to the new American age, where everything about knowledge is made up, and apparently, points of truth and facts no longer matter. While Merriam-Webster considers its top result of 2016, The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year. As NPR reports, “The word has been around for a few decades or so, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, there has been a spike in frequency of usage since Brexit and an even bigger jump since the period before the American presidential election…feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies, that’s what actuated the electorate. Not arguments. Not facts.

Perhaps this struggle we now face started long before Election Day; now, it seems more urgent than ever. From a fake news epidemic of so virulent a strain that that Pope Frances felt compelled to condemn the “sin” of perpetuating misleading information, to a linguistics battle over how to address the Ku Klux Klan-backed “Alt-Right” White Supremacy movement, words, ideas, and the ideological weight they hold have become weapons and flashpoints.

Caption: “Hey! A Message to Media Normalizing the Alt-Right”

Source: Late Night with Seth Myers, 7 December 2016

Speaking truth to power has never been an easy task, and the struggle against the normalization of silencing dissent is, and will remain difficult. While we elegize and self-reflect, we also turn to writers such as Zadie Smith to remind us that “history is not erased by change…progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”[3] Likewise, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the dangers of complacency and neutrality – and goes a step further to remind us of the boundaries of empathy:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of ‘healing’ and ‘not becoming the hate we hate’ sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”[4]

Words can obfuscate, enlighten, and entrap – and these complexities are elements we anticipate and enjoy when working with literary texts and critical theories. Although the questions surrounding a liberal or humanities-affiliated education may still haunt us, nowhere else can one find a space more prepared for the deconstruction of flashy rhetoric and the unpacking of ideology. Beyond the humanities, critical engagement with disparate voices, texts, and the ideas they represent pertain to disciplines all across the board, and intellectual endeavors of all stripes. We have many more lessons to teach, and much left to learn. This is our task, and may we rise to meet it.

[1] “Learning from Britain’s Unnecessary Crisis.” E.J. Dionne Jr. The Washington Post. 26 June 2016.

[2] Most recently, the union president representing workers at the Indianapolis branch of Carrier Corp. criticized the business deal the President-elect enacted late last month. Chuck Jones, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, challenged Trump to authenticate his claims, and soon afterwards began receiving anonymous death threats.

[3] “On Optimism and Despair.” Zadie Smith. The New York Review of Books. 22 December 2016 Issue.

[4] “Now is the Time to Talk About what we are Actually Talking About.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The New Yorker. 2 December 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.
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