This guest contribution was submitted by Lenore Holditch, who specializes in writing about top online colleges. Questions and comments can be sent to: holditch.lenore @ gmail.com.
Last year, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research published findings in a widely publicized study that demonstrated that today’s college students are significantly less empathetic than were college students who attended school in the 80s and 90s. According to Sara Konrath, a research at the Institute, students are 40% less empathetic after the year 2000 as compared to students who attended school two or three decades ago. The study essentially compounded the results of 72 different studies of American college students, ranging from 1979 to 2009.
Konrath, who is also associated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry, surmises that the decline of empathy—the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, as it were—is directly related to the increased narcissism of the generation dubbed by the media “Generation Me.”
But the actual causes for this increasing retreat into the self, in which understanding other people, their plights, their different points of view, has become all but impossible, are anyone’s guess. Recently, associate professor of American culture and African-American studies Paul Anderson and Konrath penned an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which they hazarded a guess at several of the causes that may be underpinning student narcissism and what should be done about it.
Of course, culture and behavior are closely intertwined, and there is no doubt that a cultural climate in which “reality” shows, celebrity worship, and online friendships, can promote narcissism, especially among the young and impressionable. Konrath and Anderson suggest other sources as well:
“Those who lean left politically might reflexively focus on a rising tide of libertarian individualism, market fundamentalism, and the celebration of the “virtue of selfishness” by Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and their think-tank popularizers. Those who lean right might blame other forms of individualism, including feminism, social liberalism, and rights-based social movements since the 1960s. But a general concern over the empathy deficit seems to be one thing that people from both political parties share, although they may remain worlds apart when considering the problem’s causes and how to fix it.”
Indeed, how are we to fix this problem? Although the authors make references to “empathy workshops,” to me this reeks of the very “market fundamentalism” that the authors decry. Empathy cannot be examined, measured, and taught in a “workshop” setting, which is yet another product of “self-help”, an industry rooted in the neo-liberal market mentality. Empathy can be learned in various ways, but I think the most important thing is to subject students to failure and discomfort. Narcissism grows from never experiencing challenges or difficulties. When you are in an environment in which you cannot fail, you begin to think you are infallible, and as such, the center of the universe.
Another way, I believe, in which empathy can be encouraged is by reading widely. Although the connection between reading literature specifically and developing empathy is vague at best, most good books aren’t about an infallible hero. Characters are hopelessly flawed, but the best writers are able to make readers empathize with any character, even the most despicable.
Of course, these are just a few scattered thoughts, and it is also possible that there is no substantial, across-the-board decrease in empathy. After all, the study was based on self-reported data. Perhaps the young have always been self-involved ala Holden Caulfield, a narcissistic character created over 50 years ago? What are your thoughts? Is there a lack of empathy among teens and twenty-somethings? If so, how do educators address the problem?