Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Can Schools Teach Empathy?

A friend posted a link to an article about teaching children empathy on Natural Learning Australia today.

The focus on 'success' at the start of the article brought to my attention Can Schools Teach Empathy instantly put me on guard. I have a lot of trouble with that word... I don't want my children (or me) to be successful. And I don't necessarily want us to be happy either. I know that we can't be both all the time but education sets up to have the expectation that it is possible if only we work or try hard enough and if we don't reach those goals there is something wrong with us. If we don't believe that (which is soul destroying stuff), we end up believe it is 'not our fault' and fall into the blaming/victim game.

'Be kind' is a 'nice' rule but some people define kindness differently. If I had to have one rule I'd chose 'be respectful'. Less open to being patronizing.

Schools have to teach these things - empathy, respect, ethics, morals - because one of the basic tenets of an institutionalized education system is to assume they don't have them in the first place - this is incredibly disrespectful and most kids are so confused by this they decide that what they do know and understand must be wrong and ditch it. In effect they become the 'blank slates' the school system assumes they are... This translates into more jobs, creation of more 'innovative' resources, more buildings, etc. Education is an industry with a vested interested in dumbing kids down. What saddens me is that almost everyone in the system truly believes they are doing the best they can to help children.

And the story concludes with a reference to the 'dog-eat-dog world' - another myth perpetuated by those who need to be in positions of power to do 'good'. Human nature is not enhanced by protectionist behaviour that promotes fearful attitudes. If we accept that children have advanced empathy from birth (that's obvious isn't it?) and learn from them how to repair and enhance our damaged empathic ability to build a world where bullying and intimidation aren't the norm.

Another fault I find with the thinking behind this article is the assumption that 'good' will prevail. I find 'good' a wishy-washy word, over used and not at all well-defined. Better to say what we need, actually find words which describe as accurately and precisely as possible what those needs are. 'It can't be good for me unless it is good for others' says very little at all. 'If it doesn't help me achieve my goal of feeling safe, then it won't help others feel safe' or 'Biting hurts me so I won't bite others because I don't like hurt'. Be specific. Good is a value laden word with moralistic overtones - too easy to misuse and confuse, especially young minds.


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