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Empathy and Other Benefits of Studying Literature

According to the British Council, ‘a study published in 2011 suggests that empathy is declining sharply. The results, based on a survey of nearly 14,000 students, show that the average level of ’empathic concern,’ declined by 48 per cent between 1979 and 2009. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009.’

The authors of the study suggest that the decline might be due to the rise in narcissism among young people, the growing prevalence of personal technology and media use in everyday life, a shrinking family size (having several siblings may teach empathy), and stronger pressures on young people to succeed academically and professionally

Reynolds, 2015

Empathy is the most powerful tool of compassion, an emotional skill that gives us the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes— it lets us take other people’s perspectives, comprehend their mental state, understand what they are experiencing and to reflect back that understanding. When empathy is present, we respond with compassionate action, and human relationships are formed and sustained; when empathy is absent, the result is often dehumanisation, particularly of the weak and poor, resulting in a society that lives by the law of the jungle: survival of the strongest.

Those with a high degree of empathy see people the same way they see complex characters in stories; they take interest in them; they understand that people have had traumas; they’ve had problems from their early childhood; they have fantasies, hopes, dreams, fears and a dark side to their personality that they are not revealing, just like we all do. People with a high degree of empathy also understand that other people are always much more complex than we first assume.

Robert Greene, author of numerous famous books such as The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, The 50th Law, Mastery, and The Laws of Human Nature explains the following:

‘I am telling you that the key to success in life is people; we are social creatures… how we interact with people will determine how far we get. You could be brilliant at hacking computers or whatever, but if you are terrible with people, your life is going to be hell… so are you motivated to become somebody who is supremely skilled at understanding and working with people?’

Robert Greene

Amanda Ruggeri wrote an article for bbc.com entitled Why ‘Worthless’ Humanities Degrees May Set You Up For Life, that thoroughly supports Robert Greene’s view; she writes:

Take a look at the skills employers say they’re after. LinkedIn’s research on the most sought-after job skills by employers for 2019 found that the three most-wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration, while one of the five top “hard skills” was people management. A full 56% of UK employers surveyed said their staff lacked essential teamwork skills and 46% thought it was a problem that their employees struggled with handling feelings, whether theirs or others’. It’s not just UK employers: one 2017 study found that the fastest-growing jobs in the US in the last 30 years have almost all specifically required a high level of social skills.

Amanda Ruggeri

She continues:

When asked to drill the most job market-ready skills of a humanities graduate down to three, (George) Anders doesn’t hesitate. “Creativity, curiosity and empathy,” he says. “Empathy is usually the biggest one. That doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for people with problems. It means an ability to understand the needs and wants of a diverse group of people.

Jennifer Webb says that ‘At the strongest end, literature essays are everything good writing can be: argument, persuasion, evaluation, analysis, insight, empathy, judgement, and exploration. But something else, too, because the most beautifully written literary essays are crafted pieces in their own right. Literary discourse, done well, is a form of meta-creation. We are pushed to the highest levels of abstract human thought and – by going to that place – we create something equally challenging and gorgeous (Webb and Thom, 2019)’ This means that literature gives you something that almost no other subject does: whole-brain thinking. Most high-level colleges and universities value a high grade in English Language and literature because they understand that mastering the study of these two subjects requires you to use all four quadrants of your brain.

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