Just as we have to fight to keep our families out of the junk food aisle, in a world of pop culture it seems a battle just to allow in the rich diet of high culture. It takes brain-power and effort. To the untrained ear and eye, it is akin to learning another language, developing a sensitivity to sound, color, texture and nuanced language.
If we want to raise children who are caring and empathetic, we would be wise to look at high culture as a sustainable influence. Last year, a study was released that showed people develop more empathy when they read literary fiction.
Again from the New York Times: “After reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”
That’s an incredible find, especially in a society that could use a decent jolt of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
I still remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” as a high school sophomore. I plodded through Hawthorne’s nearly incomprehensible text until I caught sight of Hester Prynne walking through the village with that red letter emblazoned to her chest. I have never lived in a Puritan town or committed adultery, but as a high school student, I connected with the horror of walking through a corridor wearing a label. It’s every teenager’s worst fear. I fell into the pages of that book and didn’t put it down until I’d finished the last, tragic sentence.
I’m sure we’ve all had those moments of standing before a great painting, of hearing a song that makes you hold your breath, of seeing a movie or reading a poem that shakes you, moves you to silence or action.
That is the power of high culture. It humanizes, broadens and enriches. As much as our society might think that everything is awesome and we should just let it go, we don’t know when we will need to draw upon our own cultural reserves to save lives.
Hopefully those reserves will be more than skin-deep.
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