Will Empathy in Education Pave the Way to Social Justice?

Advances in technology have promised a shake-up in the educational system. New studies have shown that empathy and creativity are shaping our future against digitization. This brings us to the notion of how we’re returning to moral qualities rather than just purely encouraging STEM amongst children and the masses. That in itself raises the question of humanity versus technology. Has technology highlighted the cleavages in society? Is it true that we need to resort to our ‘human’ qualities in order to reach our full potential in the collective sense?

Probable.

The us versus them rhetoric has been propagating the media for quite some time now in the West, and the rest of the world for that matter. After decades of trying to break down walls of differences, it seems like they crept back up on us again. With many xenophobic policies that are put into action; from demonizing immigrants, and with attacks against Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Sikh communities that went up by a staggering 45% in 2017 alone in the United States.

Although many factors come into play as to why the world has reached this level of intolerance, many of us could point to quite an obvious variable; education. In particular, lack of empathy in education. Empathy has been defined as the ability for you to identify with other people and looking at the world from their vantage point. Research by Kohn, has shown that empathy is a natural human inclination and preventing it in situations against ‘less advantaged’ people, has maintained oppression on the global scale.

So how do we provide social justice through implementing empathy in education?

The way to start does not necessarily need to be through including an empathy course in schools, however, it could be incorporated within existing subject areas. A study has shown that reading literary fiction in schools cultivates social empathy amongst children. In literary fiction, according to the same study, characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, leaving out many details which forces students to analyze what the motivations and intentions of characters are in each story. Another key attribute to focus on after reading such texts, is the importance of discussion amongst students and starting a conversation. If it could be taught in schools then it could be implemented on a larger scale in the future. It does take a lot of commitment and time to see the ramifications of empathy induced learning.

Another important factor is to shift the perspectives of socioeconomically advantaged groups in schools from a self-interested perspective that discusses how an individual’s self-interest could drive economical and social change, to discussing the costs of oppression and the importance of social justice as a vehicle for social change and equality; creating an interdependency between different classes instead of exclusion. After all, advantaged or privileged groups are different from one social context to the next. The differences could be based upon race, religion, nationality or language, and class. Therefore, it takes a lot of awareness on the educators’ part to understand the social climate they are dealing with in order to provide students with unbiased, perspective-provoking lessons and story-telling that teaches students acceptance and understanding, forcing them and their caretakers to feel uncomfortable, because social change does not happen overnight and requires consciousness-raising approaches. However, if you are being exposed to the same bias, and ideologies over again, it would be difficult to get past this. Incorporating empathy in education brings in feelings of connectedness and engaging in empathy also changes our cognitive processes as ‘field-dependent’ which helps promote helpfulness in the moment and beyond. That in itself, creates positive and outward focused attitudes which ultimately leads to social change.

Also It can be integrated into education and tech, transfer of technological know-how from more advantaged groups of society to less advantaged groups is a step towards ‘empathy in education’. Likewise, with social media and the autonomy we have as citizens to project a certain type of narrative on it, we need to be aware of what we’re doing, who we’re speaking to, and what audience you’re addressing. Social media has become a powerful tool, for spreading messages. Therefore whenever you can, show people what they don’t see because although ignorance is bliss to an extent, knowledge is power.

Although incorporating empathy in education may seem like an extremely ambitious goal it is a long-term effort and commitment. However, conferences such as HundrED’s 2016 campus seminar, showed that is possible. Matt Esterman stated that schools are slowly working to bring the best education innovation to the world, and although it may be exhausting to tackle issues of xenophobia and racism — empathy is a skill that can be taught and learnt to fight it.