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Empathy

This is a reblog of a post I made to tcsnmy6 and tcsnmy7. I’m saving it here as a record of my writing and thinking.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. Maybe it started with Jeremy Rifkin’s talk on “The Empathic Civilization”. That was followed by some thoughts that I had about the “Don’t talk to strangers” rule that found me speculating on what the alternative should be, and ultimately if that would help eliminate bullying problems.

A couple of days ago, through Daniel Pink, I encountered an article on LiveScience titled “Today’s College Students Lack Empathy”. The studies are based on a quiz that you too can take and “[t]he findings are based on a review of 72 studies of 14,000 American college students overall conducted between 1979 and 2009:

Compared with college students of the late 1970s, current students are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

The researchers, Sarah Kondrath and Edward O‘Brien, “suggest several reasons for the lower empathy they found, including the ever-increasing exposure to media, […] the rise in social media, [… and] a society today that’s hypercompetitive and focused on success, as well as the fast-paced nature of today, in which people are less likely than in time periods past to slow down to really listen to others.”

To be honest, it’s not hard for me to be convinced by that last suggestion considering that I have recently espoused slow pedagogy, time for reflection, and learning to listen. Progressive education, if done correctly, downplays competition and encourages cooperation. I’m confident that the TCS students I work with do not fit the profile of the college students above. And there is indication that our students are empathetic, but first another quote.

Yesterday, while scanning highly likely, which I found when the owner began following one of the TCSNMY blogs, I read a passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed: a skeptic makes peace with marriage:

Maybe creating a big enough space within your conscious to hold and accept someone’s contradictions - someone’s idiocies, even - is a kind of divine act. Perhaps transcendence can be found not only on solitary mountaintops or in monastic settings, but also at your own kitchen table, in the daily acceptance of your partner’s most tiresome, irritating faults.

That makes me remember one specific episode from last year in which my students set a great example for me by accepting the “tiresome, irritating faults” of one of their classmates. (I’m choosing not to relate the story here as to respect the privacy of the student.) The NMY students seem to be more like siblings than classmates—they have their disagreements and spats, but they really do appreciate each other. That wasn’t the first, nor the latest example they’ve set for me.

You see, I’m no expert practitioner of empathy. In fact, I’m probably a lot less empathetic than the next guy. For years, I placed little emphasis on the social-emotional component of a students’ lives, too distracted by what I erroneously believed to be the only important work of schools: the academics. I was of the “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” camp—that’s all that I knew. I feel badly about those missed opportunities, but I think I’m learning to do much better. Coming to TCS has been good for me in many ways, not least because I’ve been given some great examples of empathy to follow thanks to my students and colleagues.

All of these references to empathy lead me to my most frequent thoughts when parents express their concerns about the small class sizes at TCS and their worry that their child might need a larger pool of classmates to expand their social experience. Although I haven’t seen it myself just yet, I imagine there are circumstances in which a small school does not work out for a child because they, for whatever reason, cannot find a way to fit in. But I suspect that with time and patience, a small school environment offers its community members an invaluable chance to learn empathy by giving them no other option than to push past disagreement and discord rather than seek refuge in other relationships within the school—there is no other group of people to hide in. If everyone is willing to listen, ultimately, the students, parents, faculty, and administration gain a much more profound appreciation for each other that includes not only what they agree upon, but also an understanding of their differences. These are incredibly important lessons for children that will help them with their relationships in the future.

In a larger school, I imagine, community is much harder to achieve, or multiple communities masquerade as one. As soon as a relationship becomes strained, it becomes tempting, and too often the likely outcome, to go in search of greener pastures, and in a larger school there are so many other people to choose to relate to. In those cases, we learn to play a game of avoidance rather than learning to work through the difficult moments we share with those who we have the potential to come to appreciate and love like family.

I feel fortunate to be at a school where I have learned to do a better job at working through difficult moments, a school that places appropriate emphasis on the social-emotional lives of students by holding daily Morning Meetings that make sure everyone is greeted by name each day, by helping students address issues with each other as they arise, and by placing habits of mind and heart on the front page of progress reports. This takes time, time that many would rather be dedicated to more lectures, facts, books, etc., but I have observed the results—students who appreciate and encourage each other, who are comfortable where they learn, who are willing to take risks, and who are intrinsically motivated to improve themselves. And that creates the sort of environment where true learning can take place.

Empathy is key to all of this—empathy on the part of the faculty, administration, parents, and students. So, I will continue to think about empathy, as I have for a while now. Above I have highlighted just the latest references that I have collected. Below come two more, both timely considering it is the end of the school year. First is JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement address (video and transcript at that link), in which she states:

I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

Go read or watch the rest. As the NMY students know so well, I am not a Harry Potter fan, but there is no denying that Rowling’s is one of the best commencement addresses that I’ve heard or read. Nonetheless, there is at least one that is better, one of my favorite pieces of writing, the speech that the late David Foster Wallace gave to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005. It is all about empathy. Approaching the end Wallace says:

[T]he real value of a real education […] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time.

One quote does not do justice, so read the entire thing. If that’s too much screen time, get the book—the speech is now published as This is Water—I’ll loan you my copy. Then consider what you want from your children’s education. Do you agree with Wallace’s assessment that “the real value of a real education” has empathy at its core?

Rob Greco