Want to Become an Empathy Expert? Become an Artist First

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, DIRECTOR OF FINANCE AND OPERATIONS: As the finance guy at Peck, I’m not often associated with the importance of the arts. But here’s my dirty secret: I was (gulp) an English major! In fact, I started my career as a teacher.

Back when I taught English at a Connecticut boarding school, I could set my watch to the time of year when the first student would ask “why doesn’t he just say what he means instead of saying it all weird-like?” It was always in October, and it was always after being assigned T.S. Eliot’s The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As a young teacher, I struggled to answer the basic question: “why do we have to read poetry?” Admittedly, there was a part of me that wondered the same thing my students did. Deep down, perhaps I didn’t want to admit these feelings because it would have invalidated my career path or, even more simply, because I thought it would make me look stupid. In my mind, the real answer was probably “poetry is important because a lot of smart people say it is, and if you don’t think so, then you are probably not smart enough to understand why it’s so important.” So rather than answer the question, I consistently dodged it, continuing to tell my students about “the wonderful imagery” of “measuring out my life in coffee spoons” and how they needed “a hundred visions and revisions” of whatever essays they were submitting the following week.

Maybe I felt like a fraud then, but only after leaving a career as a teacher behind have I come to understand just how critical the arts will be in the 21st century economy that our students will graduate into. So yes, now I’m the numbers guy – I’m now the one who measures out my life in spreadsheets. And only now do I have a good answer, a real answer, to that simple question my students asked.- “Why do we need to read this stuff?”

So here is my answer now. The reason we still read poetry, and the reason we write poetry, is because the arts make people feel. Music, poetry, visual art – these art forms are all attempts not just to communicate a message to an audience, but an effort to affect you, to move you, and to make you feel something, not just learn something.

Think about a song that you love and how that song makes you feel. Or how you felt at the climactic scene of your favorite movie. These modern art forms are easier for us to connect with. Intrinsically we know exactly why hearing the Beatles harmonize on Magical Mystery Tour makes us feel more than if we were to have read an opinion piece in The New Yorker by John Lennon about why love is, in fact, all we need. For art, the means through which the message is delivered is as important as the message itself. Modern music or movies have an uncanny ability to connect us with the most human of our human traits – our feelings. Art has the ability not just to create change but to create lasting change that truly stays with the individual. Creating art capable of driving lasting change is a remarkable exercise in empathy.

We all have our own favorite works of art that affect us in specific ways. My list includes the opening soliloquy in Book IV of Paradise Lost, the final scene in the movie Se7en, the last three pages of Quentin Compson’s monologue in The Sound and the Fury, the Mark Knopfler guitar solo in Sultans of Swing, Dido’s final act of defiance in The Aeneid, Eminem’s entire track Lose Yourself, the last stanza of Tennyson’s Ulysses, and, most importantly, the Russian training montage in Rocky IV. Every one of these works of art affects me (Yes, I believe Rocky IV is a work of art). They each stir some feelings inside of me that I can’t necessarily identify or quantify or organize, and those feelings make me feel human. And this is what makes them so important- these are the things that cannot be replicated by machines, computers, or robots. This is why the “A” for arts is, in my opinion, the most important letter in the STEAM acronym.

In a January New York Times Op-Ed, Thomas Friedman wrote:

…even jobs that still have a large technical component will benefit from more heart. I call these STEMpathy jobs — jobs that combine STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills with human empathy, like the doctor who can extract the best diagnosis from IBM’s Watson on cancer and then best relate it to a patient.

While Peck’s core value of Empathy was probably never consciously considered as a means to make our students more employable in a post-industrial, digital economy, I cannot think of a single value more important for students to internalize before they graduate college and enter the workforce a decade from now. As Friedman correctly identifies, machine learning is going to get better and better, and the real value that people will contribute to the economy will be doing the work that machines can’t do. While machines are remarkable at accelerating our productivity, they’re pretty lousy at thinking like humans. While a machine can be programmed to create a Monet painting or duplicate a Mozart composition, it’s unlikely to be able to create something that connects with individual people the way those original works of art do without the help of a human. Our school curricula must therefore not just teach students to further the capability of our science and  technology, but to further their ability to impact the people who stand to benefit from the advances in science and technology. This can be done through teaching the arts.  

As schools around the country revamp STEM curricula to prepare students for a 21st century economy, the arts should not and cannot get lost. It is critical not just to squeeze the “A” into STEM as an afterthought, but rather to capitalize, underscore, and italicize that “A” at every turn. STEM will push our economy further into the future, doing more with less, and accomplishing wonderful things once thought to be impossible. But the arts will be our moral compass in this endeavor, the north star that reminds why we are doing all of these wonderful things. The arts connect STEM to its beneficiaries, focusing not just on what we can do with our scientific breakthroughs, but we why choose to pursue them in the first place. As our economy becomes more and more automated, it will place an even higher premium on those who are experts in empathy. We don’t necessarily have a term for an empathy expert, but if I might suggest one, I would probably start with “artist.”

Leave a Reply