On Empathy

The ability to imagine the hardships of others, to emotionally embrace their circumstances and to respond  in a sensitive, thoughtful and caring manner is a uniquely human quality.  Neal deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist, said it well . “Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with the feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy.  Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, the focus was on reading, writing, arithmetic and empathy.”
     We all expect that our students will respond to others from different ethnic, racial, cultural or socio-economic backgrounds with a  degree of compassion and respect. We further expect that such lessons have been provided in our students’ homes.  This seems to be a conflict between hope and assumptions.
     Recently our hearts and minds have been focused on the people of Texas who are experiencing tragedy beyond anything we could imagine. We watch the evening news with a level of despair, helplessness and sympathy. But then we turn off the TV, grab dinner and go about our daily business. Next week it may be victims of a terrorist bombing or a California wildfire. Some of us donate goods, services and money. Others, particularly at holiday times, find other ways to respond to the less fortunate. This is, after all, what defines us as Americans. But true empathy is usually best exemplified at a far more personal level…the kid sitting next to you in class, the immigrant girl who hardly speaks a word of English, the shy nervous boy with a speech impediment.
     There is not a school I know which doesn’t have somewhere in its mission statement words or phrases such as integrity, respect, responsibility, service or embracing individual differences. There also isn’t a school I know which isn’t finding it harder to give meaning to its mission in light of what is unfolding in our world and in our own country.  We watch the President disparage ethnic groups, and we eavesdrop on his inauthentic attempts at empathy, usually scripted by others.   And perhaps at some level we wonder how to respond as teachers of our nation’s young.


      It is for these very reasons and for the core values that drew most of us to education in the first place that The Rowland Foundation has defined as its theme for its seventh annual conference at The University of Vermont, “Schools as Laboratories for Social Change: Regenerating Empathy at the Heart of Education.”  Our inspiring keynote speaker will be Princeton University’s Ruha Benjamin- author, lecturer and professor, specializing in the interdisciplinary study of race-ethnicity, health, knowledge and power.  We hope Vermont educators will join us on October 26 and be part of perhaps the most topical conference we have offered to date.
     For more information, workshop descriptions and registration information, please go to therowlandfoundation.org
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource or automate, but it makes the world a better place.”  Daniel Pink
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