Monday, January 3, 2011

Who Cares?

I've been reading about a new study that finds a correlation between reading and empathy. Apparently as people abandon reading, I guess that means books, they are also turning away from the innate human characteristic of empathy.
Empathy is what makes us human. It's our ability to feel the emotions of another. Moral emotions is what child psychologist Jerome Kagan calls them. Best definition of empathy I ever heard was, "The ability to feel the whip on the other person's back." Now we know what happens when a person has no empathy. It's like having no conscience. Feeling nothing, no remorse, no moral emotions. We usually call these folks sociopaths because they are a danger to all (society) with whom they come in contact. They were formerly called psychopaths, but that term psycho tends to have media buzz and is best replaced by socio. The study says that as empathy declines, narcissism rises. A real me-first mentality, I guess. I see this kind of human desensitization all over now. I see it in the behavior of people, I see it in how younger people react to one another,though it's not excluisve to age or generation. I see it in what passes for entertainment, music, and in many cases literature.
Case in point: Dexter. After reading some reviews about this Showtime series about a serial killer who turns his fixation and obsession on other serial killers, I agreed to give it a look courtesy of Netflix. New Year's Eve we watched the entire first season. Well produced, if not bloody. A great premise, and lots of cognitive dissonance when you find you empathize with a killer. There's the rub, huh?
When I think of studies about who and how much is and is not being read these days, I also think of the fight many educators are putting up just to have their students read "whole books." In much of the near-sighted school reform efforts of the past decade is the belief that anthologies with excerpts of certain works of literature will suffice for an educated person. I recall, with pride, the waning days of the 2004-05 school year when I joined some of my colleagues and a few student teachers at the time in demonstrating our disapproval with removing entire books from the curriculum. Taking our cues from a teacher in Santa Rosa, Ca. whose name eludes me, we staged a public reading of the novel Ferinheit 451 as a way of drawing attention to both our plight and the ridiculousness of any reform effort that would privilege only excerpts over the whole book. Before long we were joined by students who took turns reading aloud the novel about banning books. As you may recall, 451 degrees F is the temperature that paper burns.
Which begs the question about the use and popularity of E readers. I don't know if people or students who use the burgeoning array of E readers are included in the data of that survey. Could it be that the transition to downloading books will increase the frequency of reading. Perhaps people are abandoning books in favor of web pages/sites? New research pending, I'm sure.
A final caveat: We who would hope that the book survives, that the love of literature endures, need to do more than just condemn. We need to work toward building time and skills and places friendly to reading. Do you care about the alternative?

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