How Reading (and Being an English Major) Creates Empathy and Understanding

First, I’d like to address Diana Gabaldon’s tweet regarding English majors…

Grumpy Cat
Diana Gabaldon’s tweet made me very grumpy : (

By now, most people have heard of the “English degrees are useless” tweet that Diana Gaboldon posted a couple weeks ago. If you haven’t, here’s an article that sums it up pretty well. While there’s SO many things wrong with her tweet, especially the blatantly inaccurate notion that English majors are unsuccessful, the part that MOST sticks out to me is the fact that the girl, who asked for D. Gabaldon’s advice on what she should study (in order to become a writer), clearly stated that she was interested in an English degree because she loves to read. 

This fact seemed to be ignored when Gabaldon went straight on to belittling fast food workers and devalueing English majors because of her own perception of its monetary value. Diana Gabaldon may have been genuinely trying to give advice to an aspiring writer with no harmful intentions, but that doesn’t change the message she put out to the world with that simple tweet.

Diana’s defense was that all she actually meant to say was that, and this is undoubtedly true, you don’t need a degree to become a writer. However, that’s not all she said and what she did say sent out very discouraging message: that success is measured by how much money you make. For some people that could be true, but success is a very personal and relative thing.

So if you want to study something you love, like English, then do it. I encourage future students to pick a degree they’ll enjoy, and not just because it garauntees monetary and career success based on someone else’s standards. As a side note, there’s plenty of evidence that disproves the notion that English majors are unsuccessful just because of their degree (there’s a few sources within the Huffington post article to start).

Now on to how being an English major has made me more empathetic and understanding…

Loading Empathy Gif

Empathy – noun – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Personally, when I pick up a book I almost immediately assume the perspective of the characters I’m reading about. This immersion varies depending on how the book is written (1st, 3rd perspectives), but the overall effect is the same: I gain insight into a life other than my own. This creates an empathy towards the characters, and people who are like the characters, that I may not have had otherwise. It creates a deeper understanding and tolerance.

I’m a pretty open-minded person to begin with, so seeing other people’s perspectives isn’t usually very difficult for me. Yet, there are things, experiences, and people I may never encounter or consider otherwise. I believe readers are more understanding and empathetic because of the stories they devote time to.

Empathy Gif

In my first couple of semesters studying literature, I’ve learned to think of characters not as those that I like or dislike but as characters that serve a purpose to propell a story forward; and to think of them as characters that serve as an example of what not to be or as an example of someone to aspire to be more like.

In order to do so, I have to have some kind of understanding of the characters, and the effort to understand characters is like practice for trying to understand the real people in my life. So all you awkward lil’ bunnies should go and read more because not only will you learn about new things, but it can make you a better, more empathetic person too. 

What do you think? Does reading/studying literature make people more empathetic?

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