Is empathy something that can be taught in schools? openDemocracy talks to Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, who believes that empathy is central to a successful democracy, and can be “caught but not so easily taught:
What’s the measure of a good education, and what do you want your children to learn in school? Basic proficiency in language, literacy and mathematics perhaps, or a marketable set of skills, or is the purpose of education something deeper? In today’s hyper-competitive culture where standardized test results are used as a proxy for educational advancement, what chance is there for schools to develop creativity, critical thinking, human solidarity and civic skills?
Canadian writer, social entrepreneur and educator Mary Gordon believes that empathy is central to a successful democracy. In 1996 she founded Roots of Empathy, which offers programs in Canada, the USA, the UK, Europe and New Zealand. The program brings infants and their parents into the classroom so that children can learn to identify their own feelings and the feelings of others through guided observation of these loving relationships. Gordon is convinced that empathy can be “caught but not so easily taught” in this way, and she says she has the proof. But is this true, and is empathy as important as she thinks? To find out more, I spoke to Mary Gordon.
LF: Empathy is often deemed a “soft skill” in schools, in contrast to mathematics or literacy. What’s so important about empathy in education?
MG: Well, I’d ask, what is the purpose of education? If it’s to raise citizens to contribute solely to the GDP of a country, then a focus on “hard skills” will meet that objective. But what is the other part of citizenship, beyond people’s economic contributions? What is the soul of a society? What are our metrics to define a successful education? As important as it is to teach children to read, it is equally important to teach them to relate.
I believe that every person should be both publicly useful and personally happy. If you look at the developmental health and wealth of a nation, it’s undeniably dependent on the emotional health of its citizenry. More specifically, empathy is not just a soft skill; it is also the base of pro-social behavior. If you can’t understand the impact of your actions on others, your actions are not fully informed, and therefore they are less likely to be appropriate. So if you develop empathy you have the capacity to understand how what you do, or what you fail to do, affects other people – if you ignore injustice, for example, or fail to rail against racism, or refuse to recycle. That’s what empathy does. If you have the capacity to take on the perspective of another person (what’s called “perspective-taking” in the jargon), and have the emotional literacy to understand what they are feeling, then you’re more likely to care about them and less likely to hurt them.
Without these capacities you cannot have an accountable or collective society. Although we may have the science to solve the issues of the environment, for example, if we don’t care about people downstream who we don’t see or know, we won’t have the motivation to apply that science. And when we’re failing to respond to the needs of others we also have a less healthy, less equitable, and less participatory democracy – whether at the level of classrooms or nations.
LF: So what should we be doing – can you explain your work with Roots of Empathy?
MG: Roots of Empathy is a classroom-based program which brings an infant and his/her parents into a class, along with an Instructor trained in a focused curriculum. The Instructor guides the children to give labels to the baby’s feelings and discuss what they think the baby is thinking and feeling. The idea is that through experiential learning, children come to understand the baby’s feelings and perspectives, which is the basis of perspective-taking and emotional literacy.
The relationship between a parent and their baby is where empathy begins. We’re innately predisposed to be empathic, but it either flowers or fades in that attachment relationship. It’s cyclical: many children who were not raised in an empathic environment pass that on generationally, becoming ineffective parents themselves and ultimately contributing to the patterns of violence we see in society. The Roots of Empathy program is a disruptive innovation that gives children the ability to think critically, and lays down tracks in their brains for another way of loving and learning.
In a sense, Roots of Empathy is about building participatory democracy on the green blanket that children surround during a class. In classrooms we’re typically responsible for imparting certain information to children and then measuring what they know: we focus on how many apples are left when one is taken, rather than on how someone might feel when an apple is taken from them. Our idea is to shift the focus onto what children think and feel, and what they think other people think and feel. If we can understand and focus on how our actions make others feel, we might make different decisions and act differently. This is very rare.