Monday, January 3, 2011

Decline in Reading Literature and Decline in Empathy Correlated: Implications of Recent Scientific Findings

At Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish site, ZoĆ« Pollock reports  on a recent scientific study that appears to indicate empathy is on the decline among younger Americans.  Pollock links to a recent Scientific American article by Jamil Zaki analyzing this study.

This article notes that since 1979, an instrument called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index has been used in American colleges and universities to ascertain self-reported levels of empathy and concern for others among college students.  Researcher Sarah H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has carefully reviewed data generated by this study and discovers that in the period from 1980 to the present, there has been a decline in empathy among younger Americans, with a precipitous drop in the past ten years.

How to account for this development?  Konrath notes that it appears to coincide with a growing trend to social isolation among Americans.  Fewer young Americans are now joining groups that require social collaboration and interaction. 

But, in addition--and also significant--"Americans have abandoned reading in droves" in the past decade.  As Zaki notes, for the first time ever, the number of adults reading literature for pleasure fell beneath 50 percent  in the past 10 years.  And this decrease was strongest among college-age adults.

In Zaki's view, there is almost certainly a correlation between reading and empathy.  As he notes, a study published in 2010 by York University (Ontario) psychologist Raymond A. Mar finds that the number of stories read by pre-schoolers has predictive value as an indicator of their ability to understand the feelings of others.  And adults who read less fiction than other adults report themselves less able to muster empathy for others.

I find these scientific studies fascinating, and also rather alarming.  In my view, the trend towards reading less is definitely growing among younger folks in many cultures.  If there is, indeed, a link between the development of insight into the feelings of others and wide reading--especially of literature--then this trend is worrisome.  As Zaki observes, these studies of the decline in empathy appear to indicate that "even when a trait is hardwired, social context can exert a profound effect, changing even our most basic emotional responses."

This is the insight I was exploring last November when I blogged about my experience in using poetry in an introductory ethics class at Loyola's (New Orleans) Institute for Ministry in the early 1990s.  As I noted in that posting, in teaching introductory ethics, I have long coupled the use of imaginative literature--poetry in particular--with readings in ethical theory, as I teach introductory ethics. 

As my previous posting also reports, by the early 1990s, as the restorationist agenda of John Paul II began to influence Catholic colleges and universities significantly, I found more and more students resistant to this approach to teaching ethics.  In the case of the class on which my posting reports, one student in the class, who happened to work for the chaplain's office at Loyola, actively sought to subvert my approach to teaching ethics and complained bitterly on the course evaluations about the time I "wasted" in having students read and discuss poems.

As I reflected on this experience, I came to the conclusion that the restorationist approach to teaching theology in Catholic universities was creating a discernible, and significant, shift in theology and ministry classes in these universities.  Increasingly, the students I encountered in this adult ministry program in the first part of the 1990s wanted neat, cut-and-dried answers to difficult ethical quandaries.  They wanted answers stamped with the seal of magisterial approval.

They did not want to think.  They did not want to encounter ambiguity.  They certainly did not want to learn to stretch their imaginations by reading literary works that presented them with ambiguous moral scenarios that required them to use critical thinking skills and to foster empathy.

And as my posting last November concludes, the result of this restorationist turn in Catholic theology programs has been disastrous.  Academic leaders of Catholic institutions have, in many cases, done little to create safe spaces for academically probing, academically sound theological work and ethical reflection, and have stood by in silence as the magisterium has hounded creative theological and ethical thinkers out of Catholic academies.  And students trained in Catholic theology and ministry programs are, in many cases, ill-educated, poorly read, and incapable of dealing with nuance, ambiguity, and issues for which there is not a simple catechetical answer.

Cultures (and faith communities) that slaughter their poets seldom have promising futures.  One of the first steps Stalin took when he came to power in Russia was to round up novelists, poets, playwrights, and so forth, and either execute them or exile them to Siberia.  Stalin understood that literature which encourages people to imagine alternative ways of thinking and being, and to imagine life in the skin of someone different from oneself, is politically dangerous for a regime that wants to control people's thought.  And people's lives.

There is, it seems to me, a fairly clear parallel between what the restorationist papacies of John Paul II and Benedict have done to theologians in the Catholic church, and what Stalin did to creative thinkers in Russia.  In the case of Soviet Russia, the repression proved disastrous.

And I think it's highly likely that the repression--of creative theology and ethical thinking--in the Catholic church will continue to prove equally disastrous for the church as a whole.  And for the culture at large, given the significant influence the Catholic church has on the moral thinking of large numbers of people in the culture at large.

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