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Empathy

Empathy was always one of those words that my students found confusing.  Was it just like “sympathy,” but you sound smarter saying it– kind of like the word “matriculate?” Empathy was a little like sympathy, I told them, but it was a little bit… more.  If sympathy was seeing someone get hurt and saying, “Aw, that’s too bad,” then empathy was about feeling that person’s pain, seeing the world through their eyes, experiencing what they experienced in their minds.  It sounded so lofty, so special, as if you had some kind of superpower.

Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Empathic Civilization” makes it clear that empathy is an essential skill for the 21st century.  It’s something you may have heard in other places, too– Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence got the ball rolling with the idea that after a long time of prioritizing skills like analytical and computational abilities, orderliness, and linear thinking, technology had gotten to the point where it would always be better than our human brains at these such abilities.  The internet emerged, computational power continued to explode according to Moore’s Law, and a computer beat Gary Kasparov at chess.  We were forced to– and are still forced to– fall back on what I call our sense of “human pride”– the things we can do that a computer can never probably won’t ever be able to do– empathize with someone, break existing rules in the name of creativity, and imagine things that never were, for starters.  Human pride is one of those ideas that escapes definition– it’s hard to articulate, but we know it when we see it.

Rifkin says that empathizing will be an essential ability in the coming years, and I agree.  The confluence of extraordinary technologies and the forces of globalization has made worldwide communication cheap and easy.  This means that we’re running into people who are very different than us, more than ever before.  Just a hundred years ago, it would be easy to go your whole life and never meet or talk to anyone from another country.  Today, kindergartners  can Skype with  counterparts in Argentina and practice each other’s language.  We’ll run into a lot of people who are very different than us in our lifetimes.  Empathy lets us do what’s most important– find the ways in which we’re all very much the same.

Rifkin tells listeners that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the rest of the social media rock stars will increase empathy throughout the world– the plight of those in distress broadcast over these communication networks means more attention, more discussion, more action.  But I caution that broadcasting the troubles of the world over instantaneous, pervasive outlets  might do the opposite– desensitize us, distance us, keep problems relegated to a click of the mouse.  The more we’re exposed to something, the more we habituate to it.  If you had shown people across the world images from World War I as it was happening, they would have been horrified more than they ever thought possible.  Now, we can watch footage from battle– real battle– in Afghanistan on Youtube, and not miss a bite of our sandwich.  If every tragedy to befall the world comes through on our iPhones and Droids, it will take a tsunami-sized catastrophe to get our attention.

Either way, cultivating empathy in our students is essential for a society to be able to keep being human when technology runs so much of our lives.  We have to keep our focus on technology as a tool to serve our humanity, not the other way around.  If we can teach students to remember the meaning of a living thing, and to be able to mentally put themselves in someone else’s place– to really see, hear, feel, and think like they do– we will be giving them a skill that will helped them live a happier, more human life.  Perhaps that will be the best definition of human pride.

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More Book, less Face?

There’s a war going on.  You might not be able to name who is fighting whom, or who the allies are, or how it ends.  It’s a war of cultures, a war of this generation of students vs. previous generations of students– now the teachers, commentators, writers, and guardians of the old culture.  It might end a lot like Bob Dylan’s lyrics to “The Times, They Are a-Changin'”:

Don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.
Your old road is rapidly aging.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand

This war is between the Facebook Culture and the “More Book, Less Face” Culture– a group that should be called the Ironic Culture since most of them have Facebooks themselves.  But Facebook isn’t the same for these two camps.  For young people, social media are the same as life, as much as walking out the door and going to school.  The constant contact afforded to students by technology means that they’re never more than a Tweet, poke, status update, or text away from their 1051 1052 friends and followers.  For those of us that grew up without social media and smart phones, Facebook is a tool or a plaything, a thing that you can do when you want to– and sometimes you spend a lot of time with it– but in the end, you walk away to your actual life.

And maybe you go read a book.  So, which way of living is better?  Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows gives an exhaustive look at the neurological evidence that shows that online habits literally re-wire your brain to “crave” the online click-browse-click-browse rhythm.  It’s the plasticity of your brain at fault– do something enough and your brain rewires itself to be good at it. And it gets rammy when it can’t have what it craves– anyone else get strangely, freakishly furious when their internet doesn’t work?  Those who quit smoking might know what I mean.  So what?  Maybe we get new brain circuits?  And?  The flip side is that our brains aren’t as infinite as we wish– for all the new circuits we form, others fall away– like those otherwise used for reading, for instance.

Mark Bauerlein calls today’s students The Dumbest Generation.  Young people are spending increasingly-less hours reading and more hours online, mostly engaging in the kind of chatting, gossiping, trash-talking, bullying, and mindless meandering that marks a lot of what people– not just young people– already do when they’re together– you know, just plain hanging out. In the spirit of this conversation, maybe you can just check out this video instead of actually reading his book:

Social media and constant connectedness, Bauerlein laments, gets young people stuck in an adolescent world where they cocoon themselves in a digital world with each other, and remain blissfully unaware of the adult world around them.  He disdains the fact that most students will find Facebook, YouTube and MySpace– although MySpace has been sooo meh since about 2007– more compelling than Julius Caesar.  But then why do students even need Caesar?  I try to get my students to like coming to school– won’t forcing them to read Shakespeare derail even my best efforts to make it interesting?  And people do read on Facebook– all that reading of status updates is a new kind of literacy for the 21st century.   So what if kids don’t read books anymore– one in four Americans don’t, and they end up fine, mostly.  Kanye West and Victoria Beckham don’t read, and they both ended up fine rich.

But it’s not the same, and we know it.  The best, most trenchant point that Carr and Bauerlein both make is that reading books makes us good at specific things– like sustained, focus concentration and interpreting language.  I’ve heard the argument that when books were brought to mass production in the 15th century, there was noise  about the fact that people were losing the ability to memorize huge, classic works, like the ancient bards who could recite The Odyssey in its full version.  These same people usually say that this is all a dialectic, a historical inevitability, that digital media will destroy the book because better technology always displaces what came before it.  But I don’t think there’s such a thing as historic inevitability– I think there are people who are too afraid of being perceived as old, uncool, and out of touch, like the old-roaders of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

Here’s what we know:  When books became the norm, yes, we lost the presence of those who could memorize astounding chunks of lyrics.  But other things happened, too, not long after the turn of the 16th century.  Science flourished.  Life expectancy soared.  Diseases were eradicated.  The fundamental laws of the universe were discovered.  Superstition fell away in favor of reason.  More people had more money and were lifted out of a kind of poverty that made life literally unlivable, in some cases.  Democracy became the norm.  Quality of life skyrocketed exponentially.  I believe that these things happened because people got good at sustained, focused concentration.  Because they read.  It was causation, not just correlation.

I don’t think the internet is a bad thing– if I did, I think I’d rightfully belong somewhere in the middle of Bob Dylan’s song.  Most people that know me would say I spend a lot of time online.  I manage two websites, and give workshops on Web 2.0 tools for learning.  The internet has been my professional bread and butter.  The internet gives us its own amazing gifts– the ability to multitask and manage complicated networks of tasks; a chance to communicate with anyone in the world cheaply and quickly, the record of all the world’s information at your fingertips, no matter how poor you may be; powerful tools that let creative minds do things never thought possible.  But it doesn’t give you the sustained, focused concentration that has marked the past 500 years.  We take in the online world through quick click-throughs and ephemeral moments, and we lose patience when Youtube videos take more than 30 seconds to load.  I agree with Carr and Bauerlein that our ability to engage in sustained, focused concentration– however we learn how to do it, reading or otherwise– is absolutely essential to our ability to continue to flourish and make progress in the world’s problems.

For teachers, and anyone who serves as a role model for a young person, another part of Bob Dylan’s song comes to mind: “Keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.”  We’re at a critical time in the history of information.  The last 500 years show us the kind of advances that a book-reading culture can make.  We don’t totally know yet what an online culture can do.  But I’m not willing to step aside for some delusion of historical inevitability and bet the next 500 years on hoping for the best.

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