A faithful supporter recently sent me an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the writer asks the question: should empathy be taught to college students? The author, Richard Kahlenberg, asks: “In higher education, should colleges affirmatively seek to teach students empathy or is doing so inappropriate because it is unrelated to academic achievement and might be overtly political?”

First, I have to say I see nothing political about empathy. One would hope that politicians of every persuasion would see the pro-social value of empathy in our society. Yes, some on the far-right side of the political spectrum do not believe that values should be taught in school, but rather should be left strictly to home. Also, as the speaker to whom Mr. Kahlenberg was listening pointed out, President Obama was castigated by some Republicans for saying, when he was in the process of making his last Supreme Court appointment, that he would be looking for a justice with the trait of empathy. (See previous blog post from May 2009 for my take on this topic.) But I seriously doubt any political party would wish to call itself “anti-empathy”.

There are 2 questions to be answered as to whether teaching empathy to college students is advisable: is it worthwhile, and is it possible?

Possible? Maybe, maybe not. Empathy is a human trait that I believe is built into the human brain and the human social system, and it is learned naturally just as we learn language, the social mores of our particular group, and many other things. Most humans develop empathy to a certain degree–some more, some less, and a few, not at all. (See my blog posts on March 2009 and May 2o11 for further discussion of this topic.) Mr. Kahlenberg discusses a college which is requiring its students to take part in an 8-week program in which they do things like spending a day in a wheelchair, or a night in a homeless shelter. My feeling is, this may help some young people broaden their understanding of what people less fortunate than themselves experience, so why not do it? Of course, spending one night in a homeless shelter cannot give a true, deep understanding of what it is like to be without a home–to live in uncertainty day after day, to not be able to own more than you can carry on your back or maybe store at a friend’s house, to not know where you will be sleeping each night, to not have a neighborhood and the sense of belonging that comes with that… But even having a taste of the experience might open up some eyes and hearts to things the person had not understood and thought about before.

And I too am only speculating and imagining what being homeless would be like, because I have not personally experienced that. In fact, I would hope that the college would pair each “experience” with a guest speaker who could talk to the students about what their life is like and how they feel about it, and who could answer the students’ questions and engage in a deep and meaningful dialogue with them.

As far as whether it is appropriate for colleges to teach empathy? Absolutely! Gaining understanding of the larger world is pretty much the mission of higher education, isn’t it? Don’t most English literature classes involve analyzing and trying to understand the characters’ feelings and experiences? Don’t sociology classes, anthropology classes, psychology classes and many other college courses expand a student’s empathy and understanding of other people?

The intention of a liberal arts education is to broaden young people’s understanding of the world and those who live in it. Enhancing students’ empathy gives them another tool to do so.