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The Empathy Crisis

As a kid, I remember my mom, a music teacher in the public schools where I grew up, coming home year after year complaining about the latest round of budget cuts to the arts. Once, the administration eliminated her orchestra program entirely, and only after a prolonged parental outburst of community protest, was it re-established.

Over the years, as I flipped through national music magazines and glanced at local newspapers, the same story would keep coming up: budget cuts to local arts, both in the schools and in the community. Frankly, the redundancy of the stories got boring. Math, science, etc. were considered to be far more important than any arts program. In case of a budget crunch: save the algebra cut the clarinet.

I remember talking with my former manager about how back in the 70s and 80s, artists could “do really well” on regional tours. They would fly to say Ohio, rent a car, and do a 4-week tour, going from orchestra to orchestra to recital series to recital series, 50 miles at a time. Every single community, no matter the size, had a decent orchestra they were proud to call their own. Why? One of the reasons was that band programs in the schools were huge. Nearly every kid played in the band regardless of socio-economic background. Arts were something a community took pride in.

Such tours are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. As schools cut back on arts funding to make way for more immediate priorities, community orchestras, theaters, and museums started folding one after the other. People stopped going to concerts, they stopped appreciating and supporting their local arts scene, and I would argue very slowly, they lost their sense of community; their empathy “muscle” lay down on the couch and started watching TV.

The STEM vs. STEAM argument is not new, but what is the answer? What happens to arts education in a post-COVID future when budgets are stretched so thin communities can barely afford to pay their firefighters? Seemingly, it’s goodbye art, music, and creativity. But what purpose do the arts serve besides entertainment? They are a direct pathway to greater empathy and understanding.

I worry we are on the verge of a catastrophic empathy problem. From personal experience, it’s so difficult to feel much by way of emotion after hours of doom-scrolling on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The plethora of technological solutions which are a blessing in allowing us to navigate the COVID and post-COVID era with ease are also sticking a knife into what is left of our empathy muscle.

The simple truth is that empathy is (nearly) as fundamental as H2O. Albeit, by its very nature, it’s harder to immediately categorize the adverse effects of lack of empathy as compared to, say, a lack of safe drinking water. But it is empathy which allows us to successfully navigate the human condition. It allows us to see different viewpoints and appreciate them. Empathy is what allows you to connect with someone ten feet away in the same way that it does with a person 10 thousand miles away. It’s what helps you succeed when you shut down the computer and walk out the door.

Some school districts around the country are starting to incorporate teaching empathy into their curriculum recognizing the glaring lack of it. But can empathy be taught effectively? Do people even want an empathy curriculum? I don’t know the answer to this. However, I am very certain that an arts education is one of the most efficient pathways to “learning” empathy. Perhaps instead of an elaborate curriculum written by a doctoral candidate with an expertise in early childhood education, we need to simplify and bring back the school band. Art shouldn’t be an elective; when you go to chemistry, you should also go to art class.

I know our leaders have bigger fish to fry at the moment, but I would say, throw the ‘arts sardine’ on the fryer as well. From the local school board on up to the floor of congress, we need to get aggressive about the arts–really–there’s an alarm blaring and we aren’t paying attention.