Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Is Empathy a Fad?

On October 25, 2007, the New York Times published an article on page A23 entitled Schools Embrace Environmental Efforts, Though Critics See a Costly Fad (interestingly, the online version of the article has a different title: "Schools Embrace Environment and Sow Debate"). The article's author, journalist Winnie Hu, describes public school-based projects in which students participate in a range of activities, from wetland preservation to light-bulb exchanges. Many see this as a progressive educational initiative, such as Nicholas Dyno, principal of Southampton High School on Long Island, whom Hu quotes as saying, "Students need to learn to give back."

To me, these projects recover empathy (see my first blog posting). Engaged, group activities that raise awareness, restore, protect, and conserve allow us to realize empathy: they (1) foster familiarity with our environment; (2) increase perceptions of similarity with our fellow human beings; (3) permit discovery of knowledge (learning) about threats to our world and ways to mitigate them; (4) develop our personal experience with the issues; and (5) increase the salience, or relevance of problems to our own lives. When we realize empathy, we perceive problems differently. They are no longer "out there"; instead they are "in here." When we have experience and knowledge related to a problem, we develop efficacy, or agency - a sense that we have the desire and power to make a difference in our world.

Contrast this perspective with some others presented in Hu's article. Take, for example, Jane S. Shaw, executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, whom Hu quotes as saying, "Students need very basic skills, and those are so much more important than getting an emotional high because they've done something supposedly for the environment." Or Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association and a former school board president, whom Hu quotes as saying, "The 'ed-biz' is known for faddish endeavors....They pick things up on some new philosophy, and it seems cool and popular, and I would throw being green in with that."

Aside from the deserved response, "Sour grapes!" to Shaw and Cantrell's opinions, I think their statements also deserve to be taken seriously. Shaw is essentially telling us that education should be nothing more than the "3Rs" - Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmetic - (taught to the tune of the hickory stick?); there is no time for fooling around with empathy-recovering, civic efficacy-building, place-based, tree-hugging education. Cantrell is telling us that involving our next generation of leaders in educational experiences that teach sustainable development and architecture is akin to helping them get their tongues pierced or shop for an iPhone.

What should we do instead? Put the kids back in the classroom where they belong (and where they won't cause as much trouble - oops, but have you seen the 11/7 NYT article entitled "Students Call Protest Punishment Too Harsh"?). Inculcate in them time-honored traditions of apathy and over-consumption. Suffocate their youthful enthusiasm under wet blankets of disaffection. Isolate them from their communities within dilapidated silos of academic irrelevance. In short, teach them how to lose hope.

Or, help them plant a tree.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mark LeVine & the Axis of Empathy

On August 14, 2007, faculty from the University of Northern Colorado's Life of the Mind Program (an award-winning program offering a suite of engaging, interdisciplinary undergraduate courses) invited University of California-Irvine Middle East scholar and musician, Mark LeVine, to join us for a two-day retreat.

The discussions that ensued were fascinating and provocative and I've created a short video of relevant excerpts for my Empathy blog. Mark has coined the phrase "Axis of Empathy" to counter George Bush's well-known antipathic phrase, "Axis of Evil." I culled from our conversations with Mark four excerpts that define some of the dimensions of his Axis of Empathy: (1) culture jamming, (2) "militant empathy," (3) empathy and discomfort, and (4) empathy and hope.

Mark raises some key questions and issues. His ideas are politically charged and, of course, controversial, which is why I think it is important to post them on my blog. He indicts "the Right" and its strategy to create antipathy, a climate of fear, and isolation. Depending on your political orientation, you might find his arguments to be affirming or antagonistic (or both!). Regardless of your political orientation, I think it's likely you'll find truth in some of what he's saying. Comments are welcome!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Recovering Empathy

I'm an anthropologist currently serving as the University of Northern Colorado's Robert O. Schulze Chair in Interdisciplinary studies. Every three or four years, enough interest accrues from an endowment to permit hiring a person to serve as Schulze Chair for one year. I feel a bit like one of the mythological Corn Kings, who, in this case, are elected to catalyze thought and action (instead of fertilizing the Goddess) and then sacrificed at the harvest. Carpe Diem!

I created this narrated slide-show based on the Schulze Chair inaugural lecture I delivered last September. It's about 23 minutes long (vs. the 1.25 hours it took for me to deliver the lecture in person!) and lays the groundwork for my work on empathy in education.

In a nutshell, I focus on the emotional fall-out from 9/11 and subsequent events to make the point that, for our communities to survive and prosper, we need to recover empathy. One way to accomplish this is to create opportunities for college students to gain knowledge, experience, and empathy through academic projects that are based in the communities that surround and support the "Ivory Towers" of Universities and colleges.

A text transcript of the Recovering Empathy video is also available.