Professor Jeff Grabill, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education, talks about the importance of kindness as a virtue for educators.
In my short time at the University of Leeds, I have talked about the importance of work that makes us happy, even joyful. I am serious about that as a measure of our culture and how we engage with each other.
I haven’t talked much about kindness or about how fundamental I believe that virtue to be for our work as educators. As we head into this academic year, I am asking us to practise kindness as educators and colleagues. ‘Practise’ is the right word. A virtue becomes virtuous from repetition. We need to practise.
Kindness is the forgotten virtue and is easily dismissed. As writer Maria Popova notes in her blog The Marginalian:
“Although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided.”
She notes that kindness is challenged by what she describes as a modern culture of cynicism, cultivated as a self-defence mechanism. She goes on to write:
“We’ve come to see the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability — too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.”
Empathy, curiosity and imagination
It gets worse for kindness. Popova, quoting from psychoanalyst Adam Taylor and historian Barbara Phillips’s book ‘On Kindness,’ characterises the current state of this lowly virtue in this way:
“If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympathetic because of our kind-ness.”
Indeed, practising kindness makes us far too vulnerable for the competitive ‘rigour’ and rough-and-tumble of higher education. Kindness is naïve.
Phillips and Taylor define kindness as “the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself” and note that such an ability has become a sign of weakness.
Kindness isn’t ‘sympathy’ as we currently understand it. It isn’t simply being nice. It is rather a virtue grounded in empathy, curiosity, and perhaps most importantly, imagination.
Kindness is rooted in “our imaginative capacity to identify with other people.”
Identifying with uncertainty
We’ve shown ourselves to be remarkably adaptive these past few years, which is wonderful. Yet perhaps we’ve also forgotten some of the fundamentals that made being together with students and colleagues sustaining.
The distances afforded by technology are also alienating. We have a cohort of students who have never been to university during ‘normal’ times, who have had their lives disrupted, and who are perhaps more frightened of what this next year holds than students ever have been. Imagine what it must be like for them. Imagine what they haven’t experienced and what they don’t know about how to be a university student.
Identify with that uncertainty.
When you walk into your classrooms this coming year, when you walk into your schools, and when you knock on the doors of your colleagues, I am asking you, as your colleague, to recognise yourself in others because we all are more uncertain than we have been in some time.
Kindness is one of the virtues that returns more than we give. That is, in imagining the lives of others, in identifying with what they might need from us, and in trying to provide that to them, we become and feel more fully human. We can even feel happier.
Inspire and excite
There are practical things to be done to explain the structure of your modules, to be explicit with your expectations, and to model behaviours. Those can be ways to practise kindness.
Most importantly, however, know that our students have come to Leeds to be with you, to learn from you, and to be inspired by you.
Please excite them about learning.
Please listen to their hopes and dreams.
Please care about and for them.
Everything else is detail.