Lessons in Empathy


An article in the New York Times Friday described how one
middle school in Scarsdale,
New York, is incorporating
lessons about empathy across the curriculum:

 English classes discuss whether
Friar Laurence was empathetic to Romeo and Juliet. Research projects involve
interviews with octogenarians and a survey of local wheelchair ramps to help
students identify with the elderly and the disabled. A new club invites
students to share snacks and board games after school with four autistic classmates
who are in separate classes during the day (Hu, NY Times).

Principal Michael McDermott provided context for Scarsdale’s efforts, saying, “As a school, we’ve done
a lot of work with human rights. But you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has
to go together.”

McDermott’s remarks reminded me of a post we did this February on the
“Every Human Has Rights” campaign and companion book. Produced by National Geographic, “Every Human Has Rights: A Photographic Declaration for Kids” puts this counsel into practice by compelling
students to engage with and apply the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of
Human Rights to their everyday lives.

Some argue that “soft skills” like empathy are better
cultivated at home and in religious and other extracurricular contexts. But others,
like educational experts Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, consider empathy a core
component of academic learning and comprehension. The folks at the Partnership
for 21st Century Skills
attest that exclusion of such “life and
career skills” from the classroom is a chronic oversight with detrimental
consequences for students–and for the U.S. workforce. They point to
surveys of employers who cite skills like professionalism, teamwork, oral
communication, ethics and social responsibility among the most paramount
competencies for the workplace.

A glance at the 21st Century Skills
Framework reveals the Partnership’s prioritization of additional skills relevant to the geographic
community, including global awareness, cross-cultural skills, economic, civics,
and health literacy; and media/technology literacy.

But can schools struggling to meet state and national
standards in the 3Rs really be expected to spend time leading students in rounds
of singing “Kumbaya?”

My opinion is ABSOLUTELY YES, and I think Scarsdale is a great example of the concept
put into practice. Lessons of empathy can easily be incorporated into analyses
of literature, for instance, and applied back to real-world contexts. Cultural
studies in geography also present ripe opportunities for discussing variations in perspective
and worldviews, as do lessons in scientific theory and history. We must get
away from the notion of a zero-sum game where teaching traditional academic
content, or “hard skills,” comes at the expense of diverse subjects and “soft”
career and life skills.

After all, teaching principles of morality in the classroom may
be “social engineering,” as one statement in the New York Times article
suggested, but it’s the good kind; our
legal system, which protects citizens from criminal activity, is another form of
social engineering. The bad kind underlies global humanitarian
crises, such as the conflict in Darfur, that serve as impetus for the UN Declaration. And it occurs when
lessons of morality are absent or ignored.

But what do you think? Should empathy be taught in the

Sarah Jane for My Wonderful World

Image courtesy Lake Atitlan Stories blog. Pictured (left to right) are Jopa, Chuz, Cura, and Natalia.

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