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The Gaze of Empathy June 1, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Teaching.
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3 comments

In the midst of scientific reports that humans in general are far more empathetic than selfish (at least by nature) we all of a sudden hear that college students are less empathetic now than in generations past.

 Researchers analyzed data from studies conducted between 1979 and 2009, and found the sharpest drop in empathy occurred in the last nine years.

 For instance, today’s students are less likely to agree with statements like, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

According to one of the lead researchers, Ed O’Brien, “It’s harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.”

So some researchers blame computers and the social sites like, yes, Facebook. You can communicate about yourself endlessly, without being expected to reciprocate (“Thanks for asking about my day—how was yours?”). But one comment, from “Cricket,” on the article quoted above really adds something to the discussion:

A fellow storyteller noticed that this year’s Master of Library Science class in storytelling (don’t laugh — good storytelling and story collecting involves a huge amount of research) didn’t make eye contact. This is an affluent group of white females — a culture in which eye contact has always been considered appropriate. (In some cultures it’s an invasion of privacy.) After discussing it with them, she learned they didn’t realize eye contact was appropriate. I remember parents and teachers used to insist on it: “Look at me when I’m talking to you / when you’re talking to me.” Since then, they have said that her class is more friendly than others, and it’s the only class where they socialize together after class.

That comment triggered a veritable Aha-moment for me, because I have observed the same phenomenon in my classes, increasingly, over the past decade: there are some students who hide and avoid eye contact because they haven’t studied the material. That’s nothing new—we’ve all done that when we were in school. And then there are students from some non-Western cultures who may have been taught that it is rude to look a person of authority straight in the eye. So cultural differences can account for some incidents.  But when good students with a Western cultural background are avoiding eye contact, it gets interesting. Increasingly I have students who bring their laptops or their Kindle devices to class. Some instructors prohibit such devices, I don’t—yet. I just ban non-class-related activity. And what I see is those students—the good ones— being utterly absorbed by what it is they’re watching, or doing, on the screen. Usually it’s note taking, and not game-playing (and I check!)…. But even when you take notes, you’re supposed to look up once in a while and look at the instructor performing his or her stand-up routine there in front of you. We’re not just standing up there at the whiteboard to repeat a lesson, like Tivo on a 3-D TV—we’re actually there to create a teaching moment from scratch every day, and some of it is improv! What creates the most significant difference between a classroom experience and an online course is the face-to-face encounter with questions and ideas. But without the basic eye contact participation you might as well be at home behind your screen, taking an online course (which has its merits, but the face-to-face learning moment isn’t one of them). When I have told my students that I expect eye contact from them, they have—to my enormous consternation—been surprised. And now  I realize that they simply may not be accustomed to eye contact being appropriate, because of having grown up frequently—maybe even primarily— communicating electronically with peers. The first generation in the history of humanity where eye contact is no longer the first clear human outreach? Now that is fundamentally frightening. The gaze of The Other is fundamental to many 20th century philosophies, in particular Sartre’s, who sees it as (by and large) a competition,  and Levinas’s, who sees it as humanity looking right at you, asking for your empathy. Look at Vermeer’s  “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” the picture I use for my “Gravatar,” as well as for the cover of my book, The Human Condition:

detailed view of face

This is the face of the Other. She is looking right at you, with the gaze of a human being, real and timeless. She expects a response. But if we withhold our gaze and think that’s normal, well, then there is no empathy coming forth.

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