Nussbaum (1997) defends American liberal education’s record at cultivating an empathic imagination. She claims that understanding the lives of strangers and achieving cosmopolitan global citizenship can be realized through the arts and literary humanities. There is little solid evidence to substantiate this optimism. My own take on empathy-enhancing practices within U.S. colleges and universities is considerably less sanguine. Nussbaum’s episodic examples of stepping into the mental shoes of other people are rarely accompanied by plausible answers as why these people may be lacking shoes—or decent jobs, minimum healthcare, and long-life expectancy.
Fiction (and “the arts and literary humanities”) that fails to posit such well known “answers” fails a great capacity.
The space within educational settings has been egregiously underutilized, in part, because we don’t know enough about propitious interstices where critical pedagogy could make a difference.
Only “in part” though. The progressive potential of liberatory art has long since been demonstrated (and moreover for all but the indoctrinated is self evident, one would think)…
Arguably the most serious barrier is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. The new research puts this doubt to rest and rightly shifts the emphasis to strategies for cultivating empathy and identifying with “the other.” Joining the affective and cognitive dimensions of empathy may require risky forms of radical pedagogy (Olson, 2006, 2007; Gallo, 1989).
“[R]adical pedagogy” and “radical” fiction and other art, etc.
Evidence produced from a game situation with medical students strongly hints that empathic responses can be significantly enhanced by increased knowledge about the specific needs of others—in this case, the elderly (Varkey, 2006). Presumably, limited prior experiences would affect one’s emotional response. Again, this is a political culture/information acquisition issue that demands further study.
A key element in liberatory literature: emphasizing “the specific needs of others,” and revealing crucial specific facts and information of many types.
Third, for many people the basic incompatibility between global capitalism and the lived expression of moral sentiments may become obvious for the first time. (Olson, 2006, 2005) For example, the failure to engage this moral sentiment has radical implications, not the least being consequences for the planet. Within the next 100 years, one-half of all species now living will be extinct. Great apes, polar bears, tigers and elephants are all on the road to extinction due to rapacious growth, habitat destruction, and poaching. These human activities, not random extinction, will be the undoing of millions of years of evolution (Purvis, 2000). As Leakey puts it, “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet. . .” And researchers at McGill University have shown that economic inequality is linked to high rates of biodiversity loss. The authors suggest that economic reforms may be the prerequisite to saving the richness of the ecosystem and urge that “. . . if we can learn to share the economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help to share ecological resources with our fellow species.” (Mikkelson, 2007, p. 5) …
An ethos of empathy is an essential part of what it means to be human and empathically impaired societies, societies that fail to gratify this need should be found wanting. We’ve been systematically denied a deeper and more fulfilling engagement with this moral sentiment. I would argue that the tremendous amount of deception and fraud expended on behalf of overriding empathy is a cause for hope and cautious optimism. Paradoxically, the relative absence of widespread empathic behavior is in fact a searing tribute to its potentially subversive power.