A recent article in the New York Times illustrates attempts of one middle school of privileged kids in Scarsdale, New York, to teach empathy for those less privileged. The less privileged included examples from great literature, of old, disabled and autistic people, and even of those students who didn’t get invited to last weekend’s social activities by the “in-crowd.” Similar efforts are being considered by many other middle and high schools. Can such programs succeed? Should schools engage in social engineering?
Education, in the root of our word and from its earliest time, was based on “cultivation” in the sense of cultivating a crop of good and virtuous citizens capable of leading a society that does good and supports the virtue of all citizens. Leading was usually the vocation of only the privileged. Education of the less privileged also emphasized creating good and virtuous citizens, but was focused more on what we might call vocational training for productive labor.
We can’t convert all schools – elementary, middle or high schools – into strictly vocational training and expect to produce good and virtuous citizens, capable of self-government. In our democratic society, we treat all kids as privileged in the sense that they get training in virtue and being a good citizen. They all also have the potential of serving at the highest levels of government, instead of such service being the privilege of only those born to privilege.
Empathy is a necessary element of being a good citizen, as well as a necessary component of great leadership and management. For example, it’s one of the leadership and management training sets promoted by all business schools. And the current economic recession or depression has a large component of greed and unethical and un-empathetic behavior at its core.
Parents should be teaching empathy to their children even before they’re developmentally capable of it, instead of thinking that a course as part of an M.B.A. training will ever do any good. Since many parents don’t teach empathy, and also in support of those who do, I’m glad that elementary and middle schools are intentionally making that a part of the curriculum, in addition to academic subjects. The key to teaching empathy and virtue is the character of the teacher, not the syllabus or lesson plan.
But teaching at home and in programs at school can’t be expected to solve the problem for every one, even though results in schools in the south Bronx are also encouraging. Many children and teenagers will get it; others won’t. One of the most famous examples of the impossibility of teaching everyone is Alcibiades, a brilliant, rich boy taught by Pericles at home and Socrates at school, who grew up to be unethical, unscrupulous and un-empathetic.
Humans do have free will, but that doesn’t man we stop trying to teach them. We simply try with our eyes wide open. Even in Scarsdale, as the article says, “mean girls are no less mean, and the boys will still be boys.” Also, there’s still “name-calling, gossip and other forms of social humiliation.” Bullies and bullying will always exist.
But now the schools make clear that such behavior is frowned upon. Punishing it can be very difficult because it’s such a tricky area to find appropriate responses. However, the clarity with which we label uncaring and unacceptable behavior gives every student a clear chance to judge the perpetrators and decide whether to try to join the in-crowd, ignore them or stand up for the students who are targeted..
We can’t and shouldn’t count on schools to protect our children from hurt feelings all the time. We must help our children know what’s important to them and whose opinion matters to them. We must also help them develop the inner grit and resilience to know how to protect themselves from verbal harassment as well as from physical abuse.