In praise of human empathy
I have to confess that when the initial thrill of being offered a doctorate (from the University of Melbourne) had passed, I had a pang of disappointment that my doctorate wasn’t in quantum physics, or neuroplasty or something useful.
At which point I realised that I had fallen victim to current social and political thinking.
As humankind makes such stratospheric and thrilling advances in science and technology it’s plain for all to see that many people are being left behind in the slipstream. That we may know more about how the human brain works than we ever have, but we’re neglecting some of the forces that keep it healthy and coping. In simplistic parlance, as the left side of the brain develops exponentially the right side is being allowed to shrink.
To me, in our rush to conquer the tangible frontiers, we’re in danger of neglecting the more intangible – and the forces of society at large, and education as well, are in danger of neglecting the human capacity for empathy.
Empathy is a vital force in civilization – “do unto others” is the wisest and most useful commandment – and I’ve always believed that teaching empathy is central to all levels of education.
Why are books burned by the fascist and fearful? Not just because knowledge is threatening to the ignorant and empowering to the informed, but because in enlarging the horizons of what it is to be human, literature opens the human soul to understanding and empathy.
I did what I guess would now be considered a useless degree in literature and languages. As it turned out the degree did prove useful to my career. When I began directing plays I had a solid grounding in the history of drama and its literary context and when I started directing opera I was well-versed enough in French, German and Italian to find my way through the librettos.
But my point is that, even had my degree ended up not being remotely useful to me fiscally, the experience of my education was an invaluable richness to me.
The event of it, the interaction, the exchange of ideas, the inspiration of my teachers, all thickened my blood as a human being. And I feel saddened by reports of decreased contact hours with lecturers and tutors, since my lecturers’ methods of imparting the knowledge were often as invigorating as the knowledge itself. I vividly remember one venerable professor spending an entire lecture reading aloud the ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, in full. I don’t think he’d forgotten to prepare his lecture. I think he knew that the poem had to be experienced, not read.
History tells us what people have done … but literature tells us how people have behaved. And how people wish they had behaved.
Story-telling, whether via the novel or the stage, creates fables of human behaviour and endeavour, and these observations in turn inform and assist those who experience them. It tells of the aspirations of humankind.
We who work in the performing arts feel very strongly about the social value of our art form. Our profession is governed by passion.
But therein lies a rub. A passion for cellular biology doesn’t seem somehow as innately fun as a passion for performing. However, the fact that we love it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a discipline that requires dedicated application and rigorous work.
I believe the recent conflict over the VCA was partially attributable to this idea. The performing arts weren’t considered serious enough to warrant the kind of funding they required to be taught properly. Moreover, it is often argued only a small percentage of those graduating end up working full-time in the profession for which they have been trained.
But this is only a relevant observation if we consider education to have only one function – to prepare the recipient for their professional life.
Education, surely, has a much broader function that that.
A student graduating from the College of the Arts or the Conservatorium may end up teaching, or running a community service, going back to University to study, or become a full-time parent, but their education won’t have been wasted because the nature of their study has taught them team-work, co-operation, heightened levels of concentration and application, an understanding of human nature and above all, has increased their capacity to empathise.
I’ve chosen to focus my career on the spoken (or occasionally sung) word. But I know many people here are graduating from the Conservatorium and needless to say music opens up a whole new spectrum of mysterious – though not unquantifiable – value. Music picks up where words run dry. It speaks a more-or-less universal language of intuitive emotional knowledge. Moreover, its palliative qualities are well documented and its capacity to lubricate the brain for other learning has now been proven.
Cliché has it that laughter is the best medicine. If that’s the case music comes a close second.
So I want to put in a plug for the humanities. I love the term. It seems to me to be at the heart of a true education: what it is to be human. In this era where everything seems to be measured by its economic value, we have to keep reminding ourselves of what is truly valuable – in fact what’s priceless. All our scientific research will go for nothing without it.
I think the LESS likely an academic course is to get you a highly paid job at the end of it, the MORE funding it should receive. I think a paper in philosophy should be mandatory in every degree. I think crusty old men and women with immense brains and a fascination for middle English poetry should be kept on vast salaries in wood-panelled halls and all engineering students should be FORCED to visit them for an hour a week.
In any case, I’m proud today to be in the company of humanists. I’d like to thank you for your services to humankind. I sincerely thank the University for graduating you and for making me a serious person at last. It was honour enough to work for the Melbourne Theatre Company for 12 years. But this is the icing on the cake.