The 21st century suffers from an “existential famine”

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
It’s not easy being empathetic when conditions aren’t right

 In response to several studies showing that empathy has declined significantly among the young, and that social media is correlated with narcissism, a new group of educators are hoping to counter the trend by teaching empathy in college classes

Previous research, some by Saybrook University’s Joel Federman, has shown this can be done. But the idea of using the classroom to counteract a generational divide raises an interesting question:  what does it mean that we now feel we need to teach a generation of students what once was a basic human emotion?

Is our technology changing what it means to be human that much? 

This is a question without a definitive answer … so far.  Futurists claim we are already cyborgs (we have glasses and pacemakers and use Google instead of memorizing things) and are going to keep changing, while leading sociologists of technology like Sherry Turkle point out that this often has more in common with malnutrition than evolution:  just as eating junk food will keep us alive but not make us healthy, social networking and modern media are a cheap substitute that doesn’t really fulfill our needs as human beings. 

New Existentialist Eugene Taylor has suggested that trying to deliberately “advance” the human species has been tried many times before, and always failed. 

“The Chinese tried to control human reproduction with their one child policy, and that has produced a present population of many more males than females,” he said.  “In the history of psychology we have the scientific eugenics movement, which failed;  the attempt to weed out the unfit by not permitting them to reproduce, which failed;  and we still must reconcile ourselves to the Nazis and their plans to produce a race of perfect Aryans.  These ‘experiments’ were all failures because there are always unforeseen consequences to trying too hard to control life.”

New Existentialist Tom Greening has said “There are always existential limits, complex trade-offs, indeterminate factors, no matter how much control we think we have.  The human drive for self-actualization, self-expression, power over nature and one’s own destiny take us amazing places, but they are not omnipotent.”

If there are existential limits to how much the human condition can be bent and twisted, perhaps the effort to “teach” empathy is better understood as giving students the “opportunities” to practice it – opportunities that society may not be giving them in much the same way that some children don’t get enough food.  Human nature may not be changing under our feet so much as a new generation is learning to get by on less in a world where opportunities to express one’s full humanity are increasingly scarce.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

In the past, New Existentialist Kirk Schneider has worried that solitude … a fundamental experience of our humanity … is increasingly difficult to come by, and that this will make a range of deeper human experiences harder to access for the young.  It’s not that their humanity is changing – it’s that the conditions needed to express it are harder to find.

This doesn’t make the effort to teach empathy in the classroom any less important, but it does mean it’s a band-aid on a deeper problem – the equivalent of giving vitamin supplements to children who need fresh vegetables.  If students learn empathy in the classroom but don’t have access to solitude … if they are taught empathy in the classroom but don’t have the means to make human connections off-line … if they are taught empathy in the classroom but have good reasons to ask “when I am going to use this in the real world?” it will make their humanity seem all the more painfully unattainable. 

The deeper problem may be the need to end the existential famine we are living through.

— Benjamin Wachs