Can Empathy Be Taught?

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

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