We Can Teach Empathy Through Classroom Critical Thinking

No one with a social media account is unaware of the vociferous debates now raging about the cost and scope of government services, education reform, confrontations between the police and citizens, and the ever coarsening tone of our public discourse. I attempt to add my two cents to discussions of these topics and others in a respectful and (I hope) intelligent manner, and I try to avoid impugning the character and motivations of those with contrary opinions—but I sometimes feel like I am one of the rapidly diminishing few who still does so.

I am, as are so many others, worried about the future of our nation because, as a recent Pew Research Center poll found, we are perhaps more politically polarized than at any point in our nation’s recent history. As a famous son of Illinois once reminded our nation, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We forget this at our own peril.

The barely suppressed rage and dysfunction that seems to pulse like a distended vein right beneath the surfaces of our cities and communities seems more and more to express itself through the barrel of a gun or horrid verbal and physical attacks. Given what is going on around us daily, I have no idea how I would seek to reassure a child that the adults running the world are reasonable or trustworthy.

What do we teach our children today to help them become responsible adults tomorrow? It is certainly a question worth asking because one thread that seems to run through a great deal of the conflict afflicting our nation today is that so many people now presume to believe the universe terminates at the ends of their noses—and they seem shockingly unconcerned about how their actions might affect others. We have a great many problems affecting our world today, but a lack of empathy and understanding of the needs of others seems to be at the root of many of them.

We cannot fix our school funding formula in Illinois because wealthier communities refuse to surrender their dollars to help poorer communities educate their children. National teacher unions throw up every obstacle possible to prevent the firing of ineffective teachers because their interest in protecting their members overrides their compassion for children who are being harmed. Central bankers wage a war on savers by artificially suppressing interest rates to enable the 1% to continue to gamble on Wall Street with cheap borrowed money. Those shooting up our neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere seem oblivious to all the pain, fear, and anger they cause. The list goes on and on, and it is always the same story: me, me, me.

Perhaps utter selfishness is a perfectly reasonable choice when everyone around you is behaving the same way, but it can only lead to ruin in the long run. It seems to me that we need to stop protecting our own turf and start listening more carefully and respectfully to viewpoints other than our own—even if those differing ideas cause us discomfort.

I have always felt that education is the foundation upon which our nation is built, and this is the primary reason I have been so very vocal for so very long about the need to improve our schools. No society can long survive if its people don’t understand one another and instead crouch behind walls shouting insults. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and the first step to empathy—and the caring for the needs of others that we hope will follow—is to better understand lives other than our own.

This is, by the way, darned good educational practice as well. Rather than actively remove debate on controversial topics from our nation’s classrooms, we can help our students develop the critical thinking skills they will need to survive by asking them to engage with—rather than derisively dismiss—ideas that differ from their own. Learning to see through other eyes is, in addition, the surest path to self-knowledge and self-awareness, which should also be a foundational goal of any school worth its name.

Is our current crop of educators up to the task of guiding children through the sometimes messy business of learning how to think for themselves while engaging with a variety of ideas and values? Judging by the ongoing complaints from colleges and employers about students who cannot reason through a problem on their own, this does not seem an untoward question to ask.

Empathy is not just a matter of being “nice”. Empathy is born of our knowledge of the world and people around us that informs the judgments we will learn to make about right and wrong based on our thoughtful evaluations. It is a process of engagement—not restriction.

If our schools fail to teach students to engage with a variety of beliefs and opinions in a respectful and cogent manner, we equip our children for their adulthoods in a dangerous and confusing world with nothing other than this sing-song injunction: “Don’t be a hater.” This is, I believe, not nearly enough to help them to create a better world for themselves and those around them, and our failure to teach critical thinking skills in the classroom will do nothing but contribute to yet more strife in our divided country.

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