If identification with the human condition is a fundamental learning outcome for students of the arts and humanities, these disciplines can act as wellsprings of empathy and thus of sustenance for our participatory democracy. Democracy requires engagement with others beyond one’s community. It thrives on feelings of connectedness to others, both individuals and groups. At the least, it requires one to accept respectfully the existence of narratives and experiences different from one’s own. This acceptance relies on empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Each person cannot know every historical or imagined fact, or perceive experience exactly as another does. But by developing the capacity for empathy, each of us can engage conflict and difference toward a shared understanding that we have commonalities and a common good for which to strive.
Participatory democracy becomes real when individuals, groups, and communities see the benefits of connecting their identities and experiences with those of others. The practice of making these connections has the potential to become a way of being, a way of continuously refashioning self-understanding toward a common good. Opportunities for civic engagement–the vehicle for democracy–can provide the space for thinking, dialogue, and participation toward this common good. So, too, can the arts and humanities.
The connections between self and others are not inherent to humankind but require nurturing through exposure and experience. The arts and humanities provide this exposure, instilling the empathy that guards against misunderstandings, fear, essentialism, and hostility. Without empathy, we will not aspire toward a common good; and once we no longer aspire toward a common good, democracy is in trouble. Signs of this trouble are apparent in the contemporary United States, where aspirations and mechanisms for civic engagement, as well as a sense of the common good, have been seriously eroded. Given the modern condition of American democracy, we need the arts and humanities more than ever.
We need “a different mirror” reflecting our connected histories and shared narratives–conflicting and complementary–in our schools, our homes, our communities, and our churches (1993). This mirror is essential for us to weigh, consider, analyze, and reconcile our relationships to each other.
Identities reflected in this mirror are complex, for identity is simultaneously based on individuality, group membership, and community. It is connected to, informed by, and shaped through experience–real, imagined, perceived, or passed from one to another. Like identity, democratic engagement is both individual and communal. It depends on each person’s identification with others, and on each person’s experiences with the local, regional, national, and global communities of which we are all a part. We identify with and embrace such connections not primarily because of shared language and common culture, but rather because human beings have a capacity for empathy that transcends boundaries of language, culture, skin color, religion, age, gender, and physical ability.
By helping identify with others in the past and present, and by connecting that identification with applied learning in the arts and humanities, we can help each other reach toward common goals for the common good, and thus toward a truly democratic society. When we lose the ability to identify with others, we lose our sense of human experience and our ability to empathize, to see the homeless, to recognize and fight racism, and to advocate for the aged. The arts and humanities can help our students identify human needs and find the motivation to work for the betterment of the human condition.
Adapted from an article by Johnnella E. Butler, Association of American Colleges and Universities