Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Empathy Deficit

Today I heard a report on NPR about Barak Obama's concern that Americans have an "empathy deficit" or "gap". Why might Americans have difficulty identifying with, or vicariously experiencing, the feelings or thoughts of other human beings both here in the USA and abroad? Well, I'm sure the reasons are complex and numerous, but I'd like to offer one possible solution for turning the "empathy deficit" into an "empathy surplus": education imbued with heart-felt thinking. In my 6th grade Waldorf classroom I encourage my students to engage their hearts when they consider any problem, be it a history lesson, a political-economic discussion, a painting class, or a disagreement on the recess field. Today we discussed the 12th century Crusades and King Richard the Lion-Hearted. In the midst of battle against the Sultan Saladin over control of the Holy Lands, Richard gets a letter from his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, warning him that his brother John and the king of France are plotting against him. Eleanor wants Richard to return home. It makes logical, calculated sense for Richard to return to England and secure his kingdom, but legend has it that as he spoke to his knights he saw fear on their faces and tears well up in their eyes. He chose to stay with his knights, risking his throne. King Richard empathized with his men. Did my students empathize with the knights as well? This year I often assign first person perspective essays; students must become a crusader or Richard or Saladin and then write a factual essay describing how that character may have felt. They empathize!

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