Empathy and “design thinking” and attending to the “end user” are all the rage these days, and with good reason. They are responses, I think, to the increasing separation we’re feeling in our world between the haves and have nots, different races, different political persuasions. Everywhere, the fault lines seem to be expanding, and we seem to be searching for ways to close the gaps by attempting to understand “others” more deeply, by walking in their shoes, as it were.
This is really hard, of course, because all any of us truly understand are our own lived realities. Everything else is a guess, educated or not.
I’ve been thinking about that lately as the events in the U.S. over the last week have caused most (many? some?) of us to seek deeper empathy and understanding for others in order to try to make sense of the killings and violence. How well can we fully know the lived experience of another, of another’s culture or heritage, of another’s profession? Can “empathy” ever be reached fully? And how do we live empathically in our day to day lives?
That’s not to say that seeking understanding isn’t a worthwhile effort. We should aspire to start with the “other” whenever we can.
On some level, perhaps our difficulties with living empathically begin in schools. When we first greet five and six year olds at the door, how well to we design their experiences with a respect for their own lived experiences? As they go through school, are we continually asking “Who are you?” “What do you care about?” “What motivates you to learn?” “What do you need?” Do our students feel that we are fully seeking to understand them as individuals? Do we, as Seymour Sarason (and others) have asked, bend our practice to their needs and desires, or do we ask them to bend their practice to ours?
The answer is obvious. And the effects there are obvious as well.
If we started with the “other” in mind, if an attempt to respect and understand outweighed our own deep-seated narratives and fears, perhaps we’d see the gaps disappear all together.
(Image credit: Shannon Kelley)
David Marcovitz says
I could imagine a “curriculum” where we move from empathy to understanding. In technical lingo, that would be moving from a phenomenological approach to a systemic approach because both are important, but I don’t think young children will be able to grasp the systemic approach.
For example, being able to empathize with both the police officers on the beat, and the community of color is vital. However, that needs to lead to discussions about systemic influences that are a big part of creating a situation in which police have a hard time doing their jobs effectively and citizens have a hard time respecting police.
I recently read “The New Jim Crow,” which is a powerful systemic look at the drug war and mass incarceration.
It’s a very interesting thought, whether we are developing empathy within our students every day while they are in school. This, I think, is such an important human quality. However, on the other hand, I also believe that grit and perseverance are so important to instill within our youth. So, the balance of empathy and understanding while still holding high standards is difficult to manage. We as adults certainly don’t do it very well very often, but I think this is certainly a goal worth working toward.