Just when the "liberal" arts in higher education began to look like a losing cause due to the stampede to Wall Street, we discovered a report on empirical research, published in the journal, Science, and reported in the New York Times
, that shows that people who read literature are better able to discern the nuances of others' behavior and feelings, demonstrating more empathy for others.
And why is this important? In these critical times, when growing income inequality threatens the promise of the American dream, a dose of empathy could remind us all that we are indeed our "brother's (and sister's) keeper."
Consider the current political impasse in Washington, DC over a parcel of "women and family" issues: affordable child care, early childhood education, minimum wage, unemployment insurance and paid sick leave. These are things we would all want for ourselves and our families. In a rational world is, the next question is, do we not also want these benefits for everyone, even for people who don't look like ourselves or think like we do?
How to get this menu of family-friendly benefits approved by a House divided is the number one question for our political leadership. On Saturday, while they were celebrating a new stamp commemorating Rep. Shirley Chisholm
at Mills College, US House L
eader Nancy Pelosi
joined Rep. Barbara Lee
and Mills President Alecia DeCoudreaux
in proclaiming that "When Women Succeed, America Succeeds."
Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland in Congress, spent years getting the US Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp honoring Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and the first woman candidate for president. Poignantly recalling how Chisholm inspired her to get involved in politics, Lee also shared how she had needed food stamps for her family when she was a student at Mills. Retired Rep. Lynn Woolsey
of Petaluma told how her failed marriage resulted in enrolling her family in AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, aka "welfare") in order to support her children.
These safety nets are under attack by people who evidently don't care enough about those who need help sustaining their families through hard times.
"It's about respect," declared Pelosi.
And maybe, about the lack of empathy that the growing class divide exacerbates.
Shirley Chisholm had signed a poster with a challenge: "Help US advance." When we learn to see all of our people as family, we might develop the essential empathy and desire to see all of US advance.
And who is "us?' There is a simple answer. Genealogical researchers are concluding that -- surprise -- many of us are related through family ties. We are all cousins to some degree -- removed or not. We are all in this family together and we'd better start looking out for everybody.
And in the meantime, for insurance, since reading literature helps develop deeper empathy for "the other," let's keep English classes on the list of required courses for all students, with a double dose prescribed for those studying business and political science.
Alma Robinson, Executive Director
California Lawyers for the Arts