Elegy for Empathy

The National Council of Teachers of English nudges books off center-stage

“I try to read – I can’t. It makes me sleepy…I spent 4 hours last night watching [videos of] people getting bit by poisonous snakes.” ~ Bill Burr

I have a vague memory of a student throwing a chair in a high school English class. The reason behind the actual throwing of the chair remains somewhat obscure – I believe it had something to do with being assigned to read a chapter of Fahrenheit 451.

It can be difficult at times to persuade students to read.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) seems to have found a way around this difficulty, according to a statement released earlier this month:

The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.

You read that correctly. The NCTE has decided to shift its focus away from books and essays toward a “broader media education.”

We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world. We experience this reality daily in the GIFs and selfies we share with one another, the memes and videos we circulate through our social media feeds, the news broadcasts we watch on demand, the podcasts we binge, and the films, TV series, and live events we stream through the ever-growing list of digital platforms.

Their analysis isn’t wrong. New technologies displace the old once they’ve been fully integrated into a society, and in many cases the old technologies eventually become obsolete. The statement signifies a pragmatic pedagogical shift – if students are to be properly equipped for life in contemporary society, they will need to know how to navigate the complex mediated environment we’ve created.

It’s hard to take issue with the expansion of the curriculum – we need technologically literate graduates. The problem lies with the NCTE’s view of education. They believe the shift away from books will increase student engagement and make English language arts (ELA) more relevant to the world the students inhabit beyond school walls. This is a rationalistic, utilitarian line of thought, one that has been slowly eschewing the liberal arts in favor of the STEM fields. The humanities that remain have been filtered through so many critical-examination sieves that they’ve left nearly everything of value behind and have excused themselves from legitimacy.

It would benefit the NCTE to believe that ELA already had something of value to contribute to contemporary society. The reading of literature, however challenging that task may seem in the digital age, may just hold a key to healing our societal cleavages: the fostering of empathy.

In a world of immediate outrage, high-decibel moralizing, and intolerance for opposing viewpoints, students don’t need to know how to analyze videos of people eating cereal out of each other’s mouths for subliminal power dynamics. They need to learn how to listen to and understand opposing viewpoints and to express their own in a thoughtful, respectful manner. Different media have different impacts on our ability to do so.

Physical books have an inherent advantage when it comes to creating empathy. When we read a winding narrative on a printed page, it requires sustained focus. Books are long and slow. Even a “quick read” requires more of a commitment than most films. If we’re to draw a message from it, we need to wade fully into it. Shortcuts only serve to cheapen the message. The only voice is the author’s, perhaps expressed through different characters and often through dialogue within the story, but the author will not be shouted down or banned from the book we’re already holding in our hands. We’re allowed to disagree with the author – we can even put the book down if we like – but if we’re to engage with it, the medium itself requires us to listen. Reading without being able to give instantaneous feedback is a form of listening, which forces us to consider arguments we may otherwise tune out. By learning how to listen before responding, we develop an empathetic mindset, creating a bridge of communication that allows for legitimately civil discourse.

The slow pace of reading does not mesh well with the prevailing nature of our post-Industrial Revolution world. We live by the clock – the products we sell are efficiency, comfort, and convenience. In terms of surface-level progress, this has been a helpful development. We’ve sped up production, lowered the prices of consumer goods, and made advances in science and medicine that are helping us live longer than ever before. But the tools that enable the “efficiency mindset” have unintended consequences.

Nicholas Carr was one of the early thinkers to recognize, from experience, the internet's influence on his mind.

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.[1]

Carr goes on to explain that certain tech companies are financially motivated to persuade us to click as many links as possible. The more we jump from page to page, the higher their ad revenue. Our distraction is their profit. This sets up a race to the brainstem – to get clicks, content needs to be as immediately shocking, tempting, or outrage-inducing as possible. When we spend the majority of our day interacting with a medium shaped by so many potential sources of novelty, our brains become conditioned to work within that context. How are we supposed to appropriately engage with an opposing viewpoint if we don’t even have the attention-span to allow it to be fully explained to us?

The effects our technology is having on our minds seems to be wreaking havoc on our quality of life, particularly affecting those raised on touchscreens – the digital natives. Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, noted that teenage depression rates spiked in 2012, which was the first year that more than 50% of Americans owned a smartphone, and these depression rates have been steadily rising ever since. Silicon Valley seems to recognize the impact of its products on the young – many tech moguls have imposed strict limits on their own children’s use of the very technology they’ve helped create. Society is more productive, but it’s also angrier, more depressed, and less willing to engage in civil discourse than it was even fifteen years ago.

Once a technology has been widely adopted by a society, it’s impossible to return to “the way it was” before its invention. This means it isn’t helpful to debate whether or not to implement some technology in the first place – the question to ask is how we respond to it now that it’s here.

It makes perfect sense to create a curriculum that allows for healthy, structured interaction with the internet. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s time to “decenter books and essay writing.” There is value enough in the stories, but there is perhaps even more to be appreciated in the medium itself. We need an alternative to the constant noise and distraction of the digital age if we are to learn how to understand and empathize with each other.


[1] It’s worth noting that Carr wrote this article in 2008, when the best-selling cell phone was the LG KP100. The iPhone had only been introduced the year before, and the smartphone hadn’t yet become an “indispensable” device.

was raised in northern Wisconsin and graduated from Wheaton College. He works as a writer and runs the humor newsletter The Sometimes Gazette. Ben lives in Indiana with his wife, Tess.

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