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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Empathy: The New School Subject

There's a new subject being taught in public schools and some colleges today that wasn't around when I went to school. It's called empathy. Apparently the plan is to teach kids to have empathy for other people in the world. It's a sort of variation of teaching multiculturalism. Educators have swung sharply from teaching what most citizens believe schools should be doing, and instead spend a lot of time asking students to adopt attitudes and present opinions on adult issues. Writing assignments ask for feelings and opinions instead of fact-based reports. Students are asked to discuss how various groups would "feel," encouraging the students to conform their attitudes to what they think are the attitudes of the teacher and the group.

Good educators know that real knowledge and a strong work ethic come from such things as memorization, rewards for correct answers, intellectually challenging reading, and math and writing instruction based on real standards. Real education does not come from unsupported opinions, or from expressing empathy with faraway groups.

I don't know when schools got into the empathy business, but it's pretty pervasive today. At Webster University in St. Louis, a straight-A student named David Schwartz, was dismissed from a master's degree program because some instructor decided David lacked empathy. He's suing the university now, and I hope he wins.

In another area, I know a father who was denied custody of his children because the judge ruled he didn't have enough empathy. She had no credentials for making that judgment, but Family Court judges can issue any order they want. There is no scientific definition of empathy, so any empathy decision is based on the biases and prejudices of the instructor or judge.

Listen to the radio commentary here:


Edwin Rutsch said...

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

I posted a link to your article in our
Empathy and Compassion Magazine
The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

Joe Brummer said...

What I hear Phyllis saying in this article is her deep need for children's learning and some clarity about why schools are teaching empathy when she believes we have strong issues not being taught what she would like to see taught. I also will guess she is looking for clarity about what changed? Why are we moving away from memorization, rewards for correct answers, etc. At the heart of Phyllis's post, I think I am hearing a deep cry to have growth and learning for children in a way that benefits all of us.

I would like to shed some light on why Empathy. Since the discovery of mirror neurons in 1990, science and learning has changed. One researcher stated, "Mirror Neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology." The short answer is that the science about learning has changed. We just simply know more about how people learn and we are working to incorporate that into our schools.

I hear the comments about rewards for correct answers and I have to admit I cringe. We have 50 years of research on motivation and learning that tell us rewards lower performance. Rewards are great for getting rewards and NOT for helping kids keep natural curiosity and learning. THe movement away from rewards is based on research that shows rewards hurt more than they help. I wish more schools would move from reward systems as the research show just how much they hurt kids.

I also hear Phyllis talk about how schools were for her 50, 60 years ago and how different things are now. Simply, my reply is, we know more about learning, motivation, and psychology than we did then. We are trying to move into directions that don't just create a workforce, we create humans who can do great things. We want to look back at our mistakes in teaching and create better systems.

Empathy is essential to learning and living. It is the next greatest discovery for humans. Looking at the future of our workforce we can see a further focus on design and design takes empathy. We need people to design products standing in the shoes of those who will use those products. We need kids who move forward standing in the shoes of those who will benefit (or be hurt) by their actions.

Empathy has come a million miles since 1990. The exact importance of Emotional Intelligence and Empathy is just coming into focus. We know that the wave of the future is based on our ability to feel each other out, to understand each other. In other words, empathy is essential to our future. It is also in decline according to the research.

I hope you reconsider your stance about empathy, it is the driving force of what makes us human and vital to our success moving forward. I teach empathy to students in schools and I can't begin to tell you in a comment on a blog of the success of this work. I can tell you that I believe in empathy, the research and I see on the ground level just how impacting this work is.....

On a more personal note to Phyllis, I work in a city where the murder rate is high and children are sucked into gangs, crime and poverty with little choice. I can see daily in my work that empathy is essential. I wish I could convince more school systems to teach empathy because I can directly see the benefits. I could show the evidence to you. Empathy matters!!

'Ji said...

Phyllis, I'm wondering if we would agree on a criticism of this judge's action while in charge of making a custody decision, presumably for the wellbeing of these children.

Now, if the judge had understood her own concern about the father as perhaps wanting to hear more evidence that he possessed the skills to connect with and meet the needs of his children, that would have sounded like the beginning of a process helping the children to get the most out of having their two parents.

Seems to me there's an shortcoming implicit in the Judges's judgement, a contradiction of sorts "Given that you're behind in extending understanding towards your daughters, I will make a judgement rather than seeing that you gain understanding as to extend that which I'm not demonstrating with you." The institution isn't all that much more less unhelpful than what it's there to correct for.

So, unfortunately, the ruling itself doesn't contain any verifiable claim.
How can you operate to have a justice that doesn't involve a standard that can be standardized? These are the ideals of fairness and impartiality. Also, I don't see how the ruling of 'insufficient empathy' takes into consideration how people with good reason will make new decisions and can make real changes - that's if there's a real case to be made for an extraordinary lack of the father's parenting skills.

Perhaps it isn't a coincidence, but reasoning about the duties of people in such positions are exactly where I'm most grateful that I have successfully practiced approaches I might call 'empathic.'

What I find valuable about those practices involving feelings isn't feeling for it's own sake but in having a coherent and communicable framework
for making sense of these issues with each other.

So what are the differentiations which best open this field to investigation akin to science? What principals make human communication amenable to replicable improvements? That raise the quality of our connections and interpersonal outcomes?

These proper or true (verifiable) realities about the social functioning of the meaning we find in feelings, could, I claim, be referred to as "empathy", and association with people in other parts of the world is secondary but related to how you live your own life and act in your existing relationships.

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