Can Empathy Be Taught?

By Monroe, Kristen Renwick | Academe, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

Can Empathy Be Taught?

Monroe, Kristen Renwick, Academe

Irvine students learned to comb prejudice by thinking themselves into another's position.

If you just learn a single trick . . . you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

-Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

Prejudice and discrimination are ugly cousins, haunt-ing humankind like the evil fairy who appears un-bidden to curse the young princess.1 Is education the good fairy, bestowing tools to overcome this curse? A course I taught in winter 2006 at the University of California, Irvine-one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the United States-addressed this question.2

The course, part of a pilot program funded by the Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues initiative, asked why some differencesethnicity, race, religion-become politically significant while others-height, hair color, weight-do not. Why are linguistic dif-ferences sometimes politically relevant and sometimes not? What about gender or sexual orientation? What encourages respect for or tolerance of differences judged to be ethically and politically salient, leading some to reach out across divides that isolate others?

These questions take on a poignant immediacy when we read news reports about continuing prejudice and discrimination at home and abroad and ongoing ethnic, religious, and sectarian vi-olence, including genocide and war. Students need to consider these questions as they enter a shrinking world that will expose them to people from diverse cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

In the course, I encouraged students to think deeply about their own attitudes toward people judged to be "different." Students began by measuring their own awareness of prejudice toward dif-ferent groups, using quantitative and qualitative measures. On the first day of the course, they explored this topic in an in-class essay, which they rewrote and expanded over the next week. Students also completed-in private-a series of implicit-association tests designed to measure the difference between conscious and sub-conscious attitudes toward prejudice. Students were encouraged to discuss their reactions to these tests in class, hut they were not required to talk about their personal results unless they felt comfortable doing so.

The course itself considered prejudice within a political framework, asking about the political and ethical response to difference.

The pedagogical premises were threefold:

1. The key to understanding prejudice and discrimination is not to think of differences as intrinsic and immutable; instead, one should think about why moral salience is accorded to some differences;

2. The psychological literature on prejudice suggests that seeing the world from another's perspective is critical to determining why and how our perceptions of others shape our treatment of them; and

3. Differences appear to become politicized through the cognitive categorization and classification of others in relation to ourselves.3

I thus designed the course to encourage the empathic involvement that leads to seeing the world through the eyes of the "other," hoping that this process would increase understanding and tolerance of "differences."

Different Vantage Point

Another pedagogical premise of the course was that students learn best not by listening to lectures but by being forced to examine their own preconceptions in the light of empirical evidence. The class read traditional material on differences, such as social psychological work on prejudice, discrimination, and identity. I gave special attention to social identity theory and self-categorization theory and also assigned novels to supply the personal link that psychologists now tell us provides the emotional clout to change opinions. We read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (on the experience of Asian women, since UCI is 49 percent Asian) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (on prejudice against African Americans). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Can Empathy Be Taught?


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.