Empathy and the Liberal Arts

graduates throwing graduation hats in the air.

Several weeks ago, on a sun-drenched afternoon not far from the shores of Lake Michigan, the dean of Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Adrian Randolph, welcomed graduates, family, and friends to the Convocation ceremony for the Class of 2016. During his remarks Randolph touched on a number of topics, but for me the most thought-provoking point he had to make concerned the relationship between empathy and a liberal arts education.

While acknowledging that students in the College graduate having specialized, or majored, in one or two academic subjects, Randolph suggested that the real value of the education they had received might reside “in the interstices, the spaces in between your courses, and the notional connections you will now continue to forge as you develop.” He told our graduates that he hoped “you will recall the joys and frustrations of having to study things that were way out of your comfort zones” because “this intellectual stretching is at the core of our educational mode in a college of arts and sciences.”

The adaptability that develops from these kinds of intellectual challenges, Randolph observed, is important for one’s personal and professional life, in large part because it cultivates a “deep empathy.” “Through viewing the world through many lenses,” he noted, “one ideally learns how to empathize with others, to grasp the world from many different perspectives.”

This is a message every college senior should hear before leaving campus after graduation.

If I may borrow a concept from our economics department, empathy is a commodity for which demand far exceeds supply. Watching the evening news has become a painful experience as political discourse in the United States and the European democracies becomes increasingly vitriolic, divisive, and vulgar. Empathy, or the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, no longer appears to be a worthy aspiration for many politicians — or for many of us, either, judging by the boorish behavior demonstrated by some attendees at recent political rallies. The notion that we might make an effort to understand a point-of-view different from our own appears, like the British pound sterling in recent days, to have lost much of its value.

Similar to taking on an academic subject we know little about, living empathetically takes us out of our comfort zones. Empathy does not come naturally to many of us, which is why we need to learn how to do it, much as we need to learn how to write a formal thank-you note or offer a firm handshake. Empathy is above all about establishing and sustaining connection with others; it transports us from a narrow field of awareness constrained by self-reference to a more expansive view of the world, one informed by a commitment to mutual understanding and the exploration of shared values. Most challenging of all, empathy requires us to admit on occasion that we, too, might be part of the problem we are struggling to solve — a reality even the most responsible among us find difficult to acknowledge, especially when we are battling each other in the heat of a high-stakes political campaign.

I suspect there is a relationship between the growing incivility of our political culture and the increasingly frequent (and vocal) challenges to the value of a liberal arts education that surface, now, almost weekly in the media. Politicians who know better — in some cases because they, too, are beneficiaries of the very kind of education they now publicly scorn — argue that a liberal arts education is at best an irrelevant luxury affordable to only a privileged few and at worst an unconscionable waste of taxpayers’ money. And in an era of stagnant economic growth, critics charge that a liberal arts education does little to prepare college graduates for work in the “real world” — by which, I assume, they mean the hard-nosed world of business. This last charge has been thoroughly discredited in recent years by CEOs and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alike who identify those with liberal arts degrees as among the most creative, collaborative, and promotable associates in their organizations.

It’s become clear that a liberal arts education has never been more valuable for college graduates who will require agility, adaptability, and resilience as they progress through what some project will be five to ten different careers over the course of their working lives.

But I would go further and argue that such an education has now become indispensable for the very survival of our democratic institutions, which depend for their vitality and relevance largely on the arts of communication, innovation, and cooperation — all hallmarks of an interdisciplinary arts and sciences education that “seeks to view the world through many lenses.” Let’s not forget that the “liberal arts,” as the name implies, denotes a particular kind of curriculum aimed at being of particular benefit to free citizens living in a democratic society.

Just as much of the value of a liberal arts education is to be found in the “interstices” between courses taken and majors earned, it should be self-evident that the real value of political debate lies in finding the truth concealed somewhere between the monocular, polarizing arguments of Republican versus Democrat or “Leave” versus “Remain.” This certainly was the prevailing view in the not too distant past, when a politician’s reputation rested largely on his or her ability to compromise and work productively with others across the aisle, with the aim of reaching mutually agreeable and beneficial solutions.

Today, however, we stare in utter disbelief as politicians scream and hurl obscene insults at each other, while their supporters slug it out in a nightmarish Hobbesian world in which, the Leviathan’s author writes, “the condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

Searching for common ground and shared concerns in times of political, economic and social disruption is difficult and often thankless work, but it’s work that more often than not leads to the discovery of new knowledge, new truths, and new solutions to seemingly intractable problems. We can be sure that in a world without empathy, without some fundamental understanding of and concern for how other people think and live, finding such solutions will be next to impossible. If this is the only benefit a liberal arts education has to offer — and of course there are many others as well — such an education will be well worth the investment, for our own sake as well as for the sake of our children.

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