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Home » How Literature Can Help Us Develop Empathy: Beth Ann Fennelly (Transcript)

How Literature Can Help Us Develop Empathy: Beth Ann Fennelly (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Beth Ann Fennelly’s talk titled “How Literature Can Help Us Develop Empathy” at TEDxUniversityofMississippi conference.

In this TEDx talk, poet and prose writer Beth Ann Fennelly explores the declining interest in humanities majors, focusing on literature, and connects this trend to a broader decrease in empathy among college students. She presents compelling evidence from literary neuroscience to argue that reading fiction enhances our ability to empathize with others by putting us in the shoes of diverse characters and situations.

Fennelly highlights studies showing that regular readers can better interpret emotions and social cues, effectively debunking stereotypes of bookworms as socially inept. The talk includes engaging experiments demonstrating how literature can influence our emotional intelligence and social awareness. Fennelly also discusses how literature can reduce biases and improve attitudes towards marginalized groups, citing studies involving novels and the Harry Potter series.

She passionately advocates for the role of literature in fostering a more harmonious world, suggesting it as a tool for policymakers to gain insight into the lives of those affected by their decisions. Ultimately, Fennelly’s talk is a persuasive call to rediscover the joy and social value of reading literature.

Listen to the audio version here:


Greetings from an evangelist for a declining field, the study of literature. English majors, like all humanities majors, are on the wane. Until 2011, one-third of the degrees granted from liberal arts colleges went to the humanities. Now, just one-quarter do. At research universities during the same time period, degrees in the humanities fell from 17 to 11 percent. What accounts for this? Probably practicalities. 2011 graduates were choosing their majors in 2008, the recession.

Given the absurd cost of a college degree, who can blame students for choosing more vocational majors? I, too, have college tuition woes. My husband and I have a freshman in college with two younger children approaching the starting block. I, too, have heard the old joke. Question: What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench? Answer: A park bench can support a family of four. So, I get why English majors would be on the decline.

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