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Teaching Empathy to the ‘Me’ Generation

• July 18, 2011 • 4:00 AM

A Midwestern university experiments in teaching empathy not merely through classroom curriculum, but by having students live the lives of the working poor.

The banner on the side of the Capital University music conservatory has an outline of a sneaker and asks, “They walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. How much did they learn?”

Inside the hall in Columbus, Ohio, a few hundred people wait to find out. They are here this evening late in April for the concluding event of the Empathy Experiment — an experiment not in an empirical sense, but in teaching empathy.

Standing at a podium, the organ pipes above him reminiscent of a church hall, Board of Trustees member Ronald St. Pierre says the idea was for students to explore a social issue “not only by reading books and taking tests, but by immersing themselves in the realities of the situation.” The eight-week program required, for example, that students undergo a temporary eviction, be processed and stay a night at a homeless shelter, and go a night without eating. “It was a good chance for students to, frankly, get out of their comfort zone,” St. Pierre says. They were to move from sympathy to empathy.

The six participating students and their community partners are introduced in turn. Diana Crandall, a first-year psychology major in a smart black jacket and tie, talks about the children she worked with through the Children’s Hunger Alliance.

“I know that I can’t walk away from this and be the same person I was before.”

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The Empathy Experiment included weekly group discussions, progressively challenging experiences called “miles,” and activities coordinated with community partners. The general focus was on the plight of the working poor. The program was not for credit yet still received 160 student applications, from which university president Denvy Bowman chose six students. It was, he says, a community service project but one that asks important questions about academics and values “that resonate beyond the classroom.”

The application asked students to write about a time that they were wrong. “We anticipated that an optimum position to be more empathetic is actually to have realized that presumptions or assumptions that you made were wrong and that you made an effort to correct them,” Bowman says. Empathy, as he describes it, involves continually checking assumptions and trying to better approximate another’s perspective.

In answer to the application’s question, Crandall told of once thinking she was invincible — until her father died. The idea of vulnerability resonated in her experience. “There’s very little separating me, a happy college student, from a person my exact age on the street or in a homeless shelter,” she says in answer to an audience question. “It can happen to anybody.”

That realization is a crucial one, says Kent State English professor Mark Bracher, because empathy depends upon recognizing that we all are vulnerable, and that success and failure are not merely personal but social.

The Empathy Experiment broadens the teaching of empathy from the classroom to the real world. In Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program that has reduced recidivism, would-be inmates participate in directed reading groups, in part to experience other perspectives. Educator Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise leads students in feeling discrimination. And by bringing infants and parents into the classroom for affective lessons, Roots of Empathy has lowered aggression and increased positive social behaviors in schoolchildren. The trend is gathered momentum with June’s TEDxGoldenGateED, which was entirely focused on compassion and education for empathy and social justice.

The general hope is that teaching empathy might lead to greater social harmony, altruistic action, social justice, and interpersonal and intercultural understanding.

As Bracher argues, “If we’re to reverse the increasing disregard for human suffering in this country and around the world, with the growing gap between rich and poor, empathy education — if it could be successful and massive — could make a major difference.”

In his introduction at Capital, St. Pierre cites a recent presentation by University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath, who found empathy among today’s college students has declined about 40 percent compared to their peers 20 or 30 years ago, with the biggest drop after 2000. The study made national news, confirming many people’s fears that young people today are not as empathetic as they used to be.

The amount of interest in the study surprised Konrath. “What’s nice is that people seem concerned about our findings,” she says. “I hope all the attention makes people introspective about the value of empathy in our lives and our society.”

Still, she can’t say why empathy is on the decline. Recent studies on social media use and narcissism offer clues. Her current work demonstrates a similar decline among the wider population.

But narcissism need not be our future: Konrath also found, in a meta-analysis of school social intervention programs, that empathy is teachable.

At the college level, the humanities in particular have championed teaching empathy and social justice. English professor Suzanne Keen’s book Empathy and the Novel examined the popular idea that reading fiction can make us more empathetic. Reading alone appears insufficient, she argues, but teaching empathy may be possible when part of a comprehensive pedagogy.

“I think it is a worthy goal,” Keen says. “I think when teachers in real life are interacting with students — all real people — the empathy-and-moral-education relation can be much more robust if the teachers can make a direct correlation.”

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At Capital University, Bowman is introducing a series of videos and interviews concerning the students’ experiences. The program is part commencement and part talk show, as each student and community partner walks on stage and sits on a couch across from Bowman, who has a shaved head, the sharp glasses of an architect and a calming voice.

The video shows junior biology major Liz Delfing, partnered with Goodwill Columbus, as she tries to board a bus while spending a day in a wheelchair. Simple tasks become difficult: entering her apartment, reaching for items on a shelf, navigating her kitchen and bathroom. Delfing, back on her feet, believes empathy can be taught; but “the only way you can teach it is by doing things like this.”

Bowman explains that he conceived of the Empathy Experiment during conversations about the economy and the need for more empathetic leadership. “You have a future generation that people are finding is not particularly empathetic, and you have a future that is going to challenge that generation, especially those who are not as privileged,” he says. “Putting those two together is sparking this interest in empathy and the desire to do something about it.”

The basic objective of many empathy education programs, says University of Kansas psychologist C. Daniel Batson, is to expand an individual’s circle of concern. “Ultimately, the goal, I think, is to have the person actually value the welfare of the other,” he says. “Perspective-taking can be a way toward that.” Batson’s work focuses on empathy as feeling for another and as contributing to altruistic motivation.

But perspective-taking can be difficult and prone to erroneous assumptions, he adds, especially when there are real differences between people’s world experiences.

In their videos and interviews for the Empathy Experiment, students talk about a greater awareness of the plight of others and a desire to help. “I feel like I can’t just have empathy and not do something with it,” says junior education major Andy Grizzell, who was partnered with Access HealthColumbus, His look of tired frustration, after experiencing something of what it is like to leave work and take a sick child to the doctor, elicits a few laughs from the audience.

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The Empathy Experiment ends with a promise to do it again this coming academic year. Bowman plans greater student involvement and more partners. The audience and students leave the conservancy and make their way toward a reception tent. They talk about empathy and the limits of their experiences — “Have you ever ridden a bus?”

The idea of empathy education makes some uneasy, especially when relatively privileged students attempt to empathize with those less so.

“There are people who think empathy is always a lie or an appropriation of another’s experience,” Keen says. “I think that if it were the case, that human beings behaved more empathically across the board and didn’t inhibit themselves from displaying altruism to one another, that would be good.”

Or, as Bracher says, “The problem is never too much empathy. I think the problem is not enough.” He argues that empathy education needs to move beyond volunteerism and toward social transformation. “One has to have the kind of empathy that really understands you don’t just give people handouts; what you do is transform the system so the people themselves can be transformed,” he says. “While empathy is not itself sufficient, it is necessary for greater social justice to come about.”

Meanwhile, on the streets of Columbus between Capital University and downtown, the need for social transformation is obvious. Among the Salvation Army and secondhand stores are shops and houses that are boarded up. A banner asks, “Have you tried Jesus lately?” It seems an appropriate time and place to experiment with empathy.

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Eric Leake
Eric Leake is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisville. His work focuses on rhetorics of empathy and writing pedagogy.

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