I Empathize… But…

by rsbakker

I liked John Fultz’s comment so much that I decided to forgo what I was originally going to post – a rant about Jonathan Franzen and the ‘literature of complacency,’ to continue discussing the humanities. John says,

Forget rationalization and reason. Studying the Humanities gives you a basic appreciation for HUMANS…it establishes and hones the natural ability to EMPATHIZE with your fellow humans. It brings you beyond the confines of your own narrow skull/body and helps you understand what it’s like to be SOMEONE ELSE. It reaffirms and enlightens the Human Condition. Studying Humanities is really studying WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN. This is its essential value. Critical Thinking skills and Rationalization and Reason are TOOLs to that end. The key to preventing tomorrow’s terrorists is Educationa and Economic Devlopment in those areas that currently foster them…i.e. giving people something to LIVE for so they aren’t content to go blow themselves up. The role that the Liberal Arts plays is to hold up a mirror so that humanity can look at itself, know itself, and ultimately come closer to understanding itself.

This, I think, is the common view of the primary critical function of the humanities beyond teaching critical thinking. The humanities facilitate understanding of the human condition, and this is primarily what short-circuits the will to harm others. I actually don’t deny this in my previous post – I agree almost entirely. The more you know about the Other, the more difficult it is to dismiss and demonize them to be sure. To the extent that a liberal arts education facilitates the ability to empathize, I would agree that it does far more good than harm.

You know, I asked my wife what she thought of the blog a few weeks back and she simply said, “I think you sound like an angry old man.” I realized the peril of what I was trying to do then. I mean, I’ve alienated more than enough people to know the risks you run when questioning critical thinking: people who consider themselves critical thinkers by dint of some kind of training, especially, do not like to be told that they’ve primarily been taught how to rationalize – especially when they feel so damn reasonable – so ‘fair and balanced.’

So I know my argument is bound to tweak any number of people who happen upon this blog. As soon as people need you to be wrong to preserve some flattering cornerstone of their self-identity, you know that the very rationalizations you are railing against will be turned against you. All those years of training. A lifetime of feeling morally and intellectually superior. An institutionally sanctified status…

A humanities education gives you a kind of identity. It makes you special somehow, or so we like to think. And along comes this asshole with a blog, a loser who writes fantasy no less, telling you that there’s precious little distinguishing you from the fundamentalist fools you love to make fun of, and that you’re only a critical thinker to the degree that you appreciate this.

I would dismiss me, I’m pretty sure. And yet, my argument still stands. Our biggest cognitive liability consists of gaming ambiguities to confirm our preexisting assumptions, and the humanities primary ‘critical’ thrust is to train us how to do this more effectively. How to rationalize.

Despite my concession, I can’t help but smell some all too human vanity in responses like yours, John. The sense that what you’re really saying is that the terrorists only need to be more like me to see their way past themselves. I mean, look how good I turned out!  The man with the hammer, as they say. Those guys from the sciences, the ones trained to doubt their conclusions from the outset, to expect to be wrong, they’re just technicians, entirely unable to see their way clear their cultural biases. They have no clear understanding of humanity.

What if the ‘image of humanity’ provided by the humanities is – as a matter of empirical fact – largely a false image? What if human beings, from the very dawn of literate civilization, have been deluded about themselves, not in this or that respect, but thoroughly, fundamentally?

The more the sciences learn, the more this appears to be the case.

For those of you still shaking your heads, I urge you to check out the research, books like Self-Insight, A Mind of its OwnKluge, Predictably Irrational, Sway, On Being Certain, Why We Make Mistakes… There is an embarrassing wealth of material that has come out in the past few years, and it’s all painting a pretty ugly picture.

And if you’re anything like me, the more you read the more you’ll come to marvel at how hopelessly inadequate and misguided our contemporary education system is. I really look at the contemporary humanities as Medieval, as something future generatations – if there are any – will shake their heads at.

Say things like, “Well, they just didn’t know any better back then.”

In the meantime, the addictions, divorces, lawsuits, murders and wars continue stacking up – all for want of human beings knowing themselves. Sounds dramatic, I know, but when you consider just how much human conflict is driven by our cognitive shortcomings…

All of it, some might say.