Among the long list of skills and talents that we know are cultivated by the liberal arts, we rarely see compassion mentioned. No doubt, I’m registering this absence now because of Dr. Peter Kaufman, who passed away last week. Peter, Professor of Sociology and member of our campus community for nearly twenty years, spent much of his career exploring compassion, and his recent work, including a book, Teaching With Compassion: An Educator’s Oath to Teach from the Heart (co-authored with Janine Schipper), and a blog in Everyday Sociology, focused on how we treat each other in and out of the classroom. Just a few weeks ago, Peter delivered an important lesson about how humans should interact (in an on-campus interview, “On Death and Dying,” with Rachel Somerstein, Assistant Professor, Digital Media and Journalism). The following week the country engaged in another election that further revealed the political, cultural, and moral schisms that divide us. For obvious and important reasons, colleges and universities have spent much of their energy on proving the value of a college education, value that is often measured in the strictly economic terms of a prestigious job and a good salary. We emphasize the skills we foster — critical writing and thinking, effective communication, creativity, collaboration, analysis and synthesis — because they are important for just about any job one can imagine. We don’t, however, spend much time discussing those predispositions that are essential for the effective functioning of the species – our ability to interact with care and kindness with each other, to imagine worlds that are invisible to us, to err on the side of less judgement and more sympathy. And, yet, I’d argue that we teach these behaviors with some regularity in our classes. We model sensitive social interaction, encourage civil exchange, and discuss theories of interpersonal communication. In many classes, we also read and discuss fiction.
As teachers and scholars of literature know, it is often challenging to explain why fiction is serious business, a phrase that itself seems paradoxical, but recent studies indicate that reading “literary fiction” increases empathy. (Some novels, it turns out, really are better than others at a lot of things.) The creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein recognizes that the key to entrance into the human world is through language and literature, and so he reads Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch and develops an aesthetic disposition and an empathetic nature. Okay, so that plan doesn’t work very well because humans are often shallow and fearful (and probably not reading enough literature). Frankenstein turns 200 years old this year, and it is as horrifying and sad as it was when Shelley wrote it. We are still fighting many of the same battles – about difference and bigotry, hubris and power – two hundred years later.
This year’s Without Limits theme, “The March of the Machines: Artificial Intelligence, Interactivity, and Automation in the Digital Age,” reminds us of how prescient fiction writers can be, anticipating hundreds of years ago the problems humans would encounter as we tinker with the delicate balance of the environment, attempt to perfect the body, and create machines that can think and communicate. If ever there was a manifesto on the virtues of interdisciplinary studies, Shelley’s novel is it. Pursuing knowledge without a moral, cultural, or historical compass is presented as madness. As we continue to pursue advances in engineering, medicine, artificial intelligence, and social networking, the role of the humanities and social sciences is increasingly important. We need professionals in all arenas who ask questions about whether the ends justify the means and whether the ends aren’t in fact the proverbial wish for which we should never have asked. We need citizens who will consider long-term effects more than short-term gains, who recognize that we are bargaining against future generations’ well-being and exploiting those who are most vulnerable and least vocal. Medical journals are touting the benefits of humanities education for medical professionals because of increased “empathy, tolerance for ambiguity, wisdom, emotional appraisal, self-efficacy, and spatial reasoning” (“To Be A Good Doctor, Study The Humanities,” Pacific Standard Magazine). Noting the equal importance of the sciences and humanities, Eric Berridge, software developer and consultant, argues in his 2017 Ted Talk, “Why tech needs the humanities,” that “the skills that are imperative and differentiated in a world of intuitive technology [are those] that help us to work together as humans where the hard work is envisioning the end product and its usefulness, which requires real world experience, judgement and historical context.” So, the next time you hear alumni say that they aren’t using their humanities and social science degrees in their jobs in technology, management, human resources, health professions, customer service, gently remind them that those degrees inform everything they do in their lives and careers.