Friday, September 2, 2016

The Empathic Civilization

Several years ago I attended a presentation at Rice University on nanotechnology. During a fascinating discussion about the most recent research on that subject, a Rice professor identified what he thought were the top ten problems facing humanity in the next fifty years.
  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism and War
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population 
He then explained that the solutions to most of those problems could be traced directly or indirectly to energy. He also explained that many of the solutions to the energy problem would come from nanotechnology. Addressing the young people in the audience he said, “Be a scientist and save the world.”

I have spent my professional life in the humanities — music, art, and history are my forte. I don’t know enough about science to comment on what I learned that day about nanotechnology. However, I liked the tone of the presentation. I liked hearing someone encouraging young people to get into science, into any field for that matter, with the goal of trying to make a difference. I see no harm in spreading a little idealism and asking young people to do something to “save the world.”

In any case, I hope the people who promote science never forget the humanities. The humanities, after all, add a little empathy to scientific pursuits. 

And I am not alone in thinking this. The merging of empathy and science has its proponents, as can be seen in the video I have embedded below, a video that features Jeremy Rifkin speaking about the “The Empathic Civilization.” (Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and has written books about the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society and the environment.)

According to Rifkin, “[Our brains] are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we our experiencing it ourselves.”

That quote from Rifkin describes what teachers in the humanities are trying to achieve every day in the classroom. The challenge of teaching students to appreciate great art, music, or literature may be little more than trying to help them learn to see the world through someone else’s eyes. 

By teaching students to avoid “presentism,” to understand the past by divorcing themselves from the world in which the live, humanities teachers help students get inside the minds of people from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. Students who do this well can learn to understand people today who are different from them — people living on the other side of town or the other side of the world. In other words, the humanities help students, for a time, leave the world in which the live and learn to understand others, promoting Rifkin’s idea of an “empathic civilization.”

"For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together. … They're touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own."
– Roger Ebert, writing about The Wizard of Oz






© 2013 James L. Smith

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