We can teach empathy through classroom critical thinking

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 are 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 percenters 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 owneven 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 empathyand the caring for the needs of others that we hope will followis 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 withrather than derisively dismissideas 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 the people around us. This informs the judgments we will learn to make about right and wrong based on our thoughtful evaluations.  It is a process of engagementnot restriction.

If our schools fail to teach students to engage with a variety of beliefs and opinions in a respectful and cogent manner, we fail to equip our children for their adulthoods in this sometimes dangerous and confusing world. We give them 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.

What do you think?
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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

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