Magazine article Liberal Education

The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education

Article excerpt

I OFTEN USE CASE STUDIES in my undergraduate classes. Perhaps because I briefly wrote case studies during a short stint at Harvard Business School before going back to graduate school, or perhaps because I used to work in multicultural training I in student affairs, I find that students tend to do some of their best J thinking when presented with a real-life scenario. Case studies give students an opportunity to apply a theoretical construct to an actual situation, and to step into the shoes of another human being.

My field is multicultural education, and while I know there are probably webbased case studies I could assign for class, I tend to write my own. They are usually short, accessible, and designed to stimulate discussion, not yes-or-no answers.

Earlier this semester, I wrote a new case study called "Toys for Haiti." In my multicultural education class, we spend one week focusing on issues of national identity and ethnocentrism. Horace Miner's classic "Body Rituals of the Nacirema" provides a beginning opportunity for my students to reflect on how others see us, and how we have historically constructed other people and cultures. "Toys for Haiti" is designed to extend this reflection into a meaningful, relevant, applied situation.

Based largely on my own experiences in and with Haiti, "Toys for Haiti" creates the following scenario: You are a teacher at a high school, and are working with a group of students who want to do something to help Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. Because the television news has focused so much attention on orphanages in Haiti, your group decides on a toy drive to help the children experience at least a little fun and joy through toys. Your group collects lots of toys, including stuffed animals, toys with lots of batteries, toys with hundreds of pieces, and learn-to-read books. About a year passes, and one of your teachers, who is in Haiti doing relief work, visits the orphanage. People are polite, but eventually someone whispers to her that the toys were not exactly what they needed, and most are gone.

As one of my graduate teaching assistants reflected in our weekly meeting, my students struggled to make sense of what had gone wrong. So far, it was just as I had expected. I did not think that my students would know immediately that stuffed animals are germ magnets and impossible to keep clean in an orphanage environment, that toys with batteries are run down and discarded within days in an orphanage as there are no new batteries to be had, that toys with hundreds of pieces are dangerous with babies and toddlers around and would not be distributed, and that English-language books are not useful in a country where people speak Creole or French.

But I also knew that this particular teaching assistant had been to Haiti, understood the challenges, and could help the students see the problems-and the ethnocentrism-in assuming that their perspectives were always correct. She was capable of working with students to help them realize that it is important to listen to the voices and experiences of others. With some guidance, I assumed my students were capable of empathy.

But I was wrong. As my graduate assistant related, many of the students resisted. Instead of even gently beginning to dislodge their beliefs, they clung to them even more tightly. Students proclaimed that the toy drive was successful, even if the Haitians did not appreciate the toys. In response to a related article about how American images of Africa are often distorted, my students announced that "they did not want to know that there are cities in Africa." As they boldly stated, they preferred to leave Africa untouched by reality, ensconced in Disney make-believe.

A decline in empathy

What happened? Perhaps the class was simply moving too fast for my students, who are from small-town and rural Indiana and whose experiences of diversity and difference are limited. The journey from sympathy, to empathy, to informed empathy (empathy plus knowledge), to social justice is a long, slow process. …

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