I have been doing a great deal of reading lately about Millennials.  Millennials are what researchers have labelled the those born generally between 1980 and 1998 (those years vary slightly depending on who you read).  They are also often called the “me generation”.  They are called Millennials, because they are the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.  Millennials as a generation have a  number of distinguishing characteristics (for more see the 2010 Pew report) including being technically savvy, more ethnically and racially diverse, less religious, and likely to become the most educated generation in history.  Apparently, they, or at least those Millennials in college, are also the least empathetic they have ever been; a full 40% less empathetic than college students from 30 years ago.   Anecdotally, many of us Generation Xers could have told you what University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath discovered, college students really are full fledged members of the “me generation”, in  all it’s glory.

empathyBefore I continue, let me qualify that as someone who has been working with college students for more than 20 years, I have met some amazingly compassionate, self-less, empathetic students along the way.  But the research now shows that they are apparently the exception, not the norm.

Most of you can imagine where I am going with this.  The arts.  Where else do you have the opportunity to safely explore the other?  To learn about places, people and conditions completely foreign to our own experience?  We can, through the arts have our hearts broken, our spirits lifted and our minds altered.  We can build empathy.  And yes, the research is there.  A study in the UK has revealed that extended participation in a music group for children 8 to 11 years old resulted in “remarkable potential of MGI (music group interaction) for promoting positive social-emotional capacities such as empathy” (see study abstract).  For those of us in the arts, this is not a new idea.  Actors have been used for years to help train new medical professionals in bed side manners and empathy.  And dramatist Lauren Gunderson goes so far as to say theatre for youth can change the world, because she says, “We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us — no, forces us — to empathize”.

Research has also show that the human brain does not stop developing till well into our 20’s.  So why not continue to expose our students to quality, engaging, diverse, provocative arts programming; programming that not only exposes them to beauty, but forces them to ask difficult questions of themselves and society?  We want our students develop into mature, compassionate, empathetic, contributing members of a global society.  We know that participation and engagement in the arts can contribute to that.  So, let’s figure out how to engage all our students, yes ALL of them, in the arts before they leave our campus.


4 Responses

  1. As a young person technically in the “Me Generation” and a staff member interacting daily with Ivy League undergraduates, I have conflicting feelings about the research findings. But to me, expanding empathy among the Millennials through engagement with the arts is a no-brainer! Thank you for another thoughtful post, Ty.

  2. Well written, and definitely worth a nob in the Chronicle of Higher Ed…. I say submit!

  3. I certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness behind this article. Studies of service learning and even international studies have indicated similar empathic development. The challenge is that students are not seeking the development that the arts are so good for. The education consumer (and that is what they are now), seek certification and career success and often care little about how they get there.

    As hard as it is to say, we actually have to make the case for empathy as a success strategy.

  4. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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