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Arts and humanities as engines of empathy

Arts and humanities as engines of empathy: evidence from the U.S.

Fabio Sabatini (Sapienza University of Rome)

The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. What we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science - the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought - are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making. Science and social science, particularly economics, are also crucial to the education of citizens. When practised at their best, though, these disciplines are infused by what we might call the spirit of the humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in - a world in which people face one another across gulfs of geography, language, and nationality.

Responsible citizenship requires the ability to assess historical evidence, to use and think critically about economic principles, to compare differing views of social justice, to speak a foreign language, to appreciate the complexities of the major world religions. The ability to think well about a wide range of cultures, groups, and nations and the history of their interactions is crucial in enabling democracies to deal responsibly with the problems we currently face (Nussbaum 2010).

According to Nussbaum, the study of arts and humanties, as well as the humanistic aspects of social science, play a crucial role in building the ability to imagine the experience and needs of another or, in a word, to feel empathy.

This paper aims at carrying out an empirical test of Nussbaum’s argument in the U.S. Drawing on five waves (from 2000 to 2008) of GSS data, we build an index of empathy synthesizing social norms of trust and tolerance and test its relationship with indicators of education in arts and humanities.

Arts and humanities as engines of trust: evidence from Italy

This paper consists in an empirical test of Nussbaum’s (2010) hypothesis (see the abstract above) on Italian data. The analysis grounds on a pooled cross-section including four waves of the Survey on Household Income and Wealth (SHIW) carried out by the Bank of Italy between 2002 and 2008. The SHIW covers 7,768 households composed of 19,551 individuals and 13,009 income-earners. We use ordered logit estimations to assess the effect of education in arts and humanities on trust towards strangers. Endongeneity issues are addressed through appropriate econometric techniques.


Sabatini, Fabio

I am Associate Professor of Economics at the Department of Economics and Law of Sapienza University of Rome, where I currently teach Economics and Policy of Networks, Applied Economics and Public Economics. I collaborate with the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research of the Higher School of...

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