Empathy *is* important–let’s rethink how we “teach” it

Forget the rest of “social emotional learning”. In a society where people routinely demonize, shout down, and cancel those who disagree with them on hot-button issues, and are ignorant of what life is like for people outside their socioeconomic bubbles, not to mention people in other countries and cultures around the world, we need more than ever to promote empathy.

Here’s my two cents, which I just re-posted on Out in Left Field.

How to teach empathy 

I’ve written about how several of the various non-cognitive skills people like to talk about can be built into the school curriculum—grit and self-esteem in particular. I left out a big one, however: empathy. Empathy is a huge component of all those Social Emotional Learning programs that have been proliferating around the edusphere—and watering down academics.

For most kids, though, basic empathy is an innate faculty that develops naturally and incidentally through social interactions, both in and outside of school—especially if adults stay out of it and let kids sort things out themselves. Certain children—autistic kids in particular–need targeted empathy training, but this is best done by trained professionals who specialize in social disorders, not by general classroom teachers.

There’s more to empathy, however, than socializing with your peers. The kind of empathy that doesn’t unfold naturally among neurotypicals is the ability to imagine the perspectives of non-peers. By this, I mean people who live under totally different circumstances: people from distant parts of the world, people from vastly different cultures and religions, people who live with extreme poverty and/or political repression and/or trauma, people who are old, infirm, or simply eccentric, etc., etc. For this kind of empathy, no amount of RULER or PATHS or Second Step will get you anywhere.

This kind of empathy instead requires social studies classes that cover, in greater depth than is now typical, world history, current events, religion, and culture; English classes that include stories that unfold under unfamiliar circumstances, and/or feature unfamiliar personality types; and theater classes in which students play the roles of unfamiliar personality types in unfamiliar circumstances. The more teachers have students read about, discuss, and even to act out a variety of other types of lives, the better those students will be at imagining the perspectives of all kinds of human beings.

In other words, where most people fall short in terms of empathy isn’t in empathizing with nearby familiars, but in imagining other lives. And only after we absorb and reflect on a fair amount of core knowledge can we begin to imagine what it’s like to be a Sudanese refugee, a Chinese peasant, or an adolescent girl in India. Only after we read a certain amount of literature can we imagine the perspective of someone with with, say, major depression or Tourette Syndrome.

This is one more reason why the bias of today’s schools towards “relevant” literature starring kids in contemporary American is so wrong-headed.

Of course, it’s not enough to assign texts that feature unfamiliar people in unfamiliar circumstances; the students must be able to understand these texts. And for this they need two things that schools have been systematically neglecting. One is a lot of basic background knowledge—of the sort that comes from content-rich history and social studies classes. The second is the attention span it takes to process often complex and novel ideas and deeply introspective passages, expressed as these often are in complex sentences and paragraphs that, for readers who can’t sustain attention, remain largely unintelligible.

As we develop the capacity to imagine specific other lives far removed from our own, we also develop the capacity to imagine other lives in general. It is this capacity, and not what the experts call Social Emotional Learning, that matters most for developing good character, citizenship, and humanity.

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