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.

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kelbel24 said...

Kudos! Mike, I absolutely agree with your comments. As an aspiring teacher, I have to ponder: what is the best way to juggle test score requirements with real, vital, experiential learning opportunities? It's a shame that this is such a huge consideration.

Mike Kimball said...

Thanks for your comment, kelbel24! This is a struggle I've heard from many of the teachers I've worked with. How do you create a creative learning environment for students when you have the monkey of standardized tests on your back? Some teachers and schools are pushing back, which, hopefully will bring about some change at some point soon!