"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Social Justice in the Classroom Presented as "Empathy"

The empathy taught in this classroom might be misplaced and misnamed.

Perhaps some children in this experiment on teaching empathy should be classified as "long term unemployed" American citizens or "underemployed" American citizens, or "bankrupted" small American business owner instead of "illegal immigrants". Perhaps empathy should be extended to those Americans who have followed the rules, paid their taxes and followed the law and are caught in a web of unemployment and dismal business returns. Many law-abiding citizens cannot pay their mortgages or feed their children, such as the 12.4% unemployed in Las Vegas. Where is the empathy for these citizens?

What do you think? Is this lesson for 4th graders on "empathy" a thin disguise for social justice, social engineering or values clarification? Does the rule of law figure anywhere in this classroom? If so, how do the children come to terms with the fact the "illegal" person is a lawbreaker? Does it matter any longer that people break immigration laws...and the primary response is one of empathy?

Maybe the children should learn laws don't matter; what matters is "empathy". The author himself writes about the law of mutuality: "It can’t really be good for me, unless it is also good for others". Think about it, that is the basis of Race to the Top: redistribution of human capital and services so we are supposedly all the same and have the same educational delivery. It doesn't matter if the students don't put the same effort in education, does it? That is a negligible matter. Do you see a common thread in this global approach to dealing with society?

Think about the law of mutuality vs the laws set out in the Constitution. What is the purpose of public education: to promote empathy (which has traditionally been left to parents and religious institutions) or to promote good citizenship? Ask yourself that question as you read the article on "teaching empathy":


Teaching Empathy at Home and School. Can Schools Teach Empathy?

August 24, 2011

Last week a parent asked, ”Can schools teach empathy?” Here’s my answer.

Empathy isn’t taught. The human brain is wired for empathy (mirror neurons). Adults shape an environment; that environment shapes the child’s empathy. So schools can’t not educate a child’s empathy. If they don’t do it well, they do it poorly.

Since we want young people to graduate from school with their social-emotional intelligence trained for success in their personal and professional lives, designing culture for the graceful expression of empathy is one of the chief responsibilities of all educators: school principals, teachers, and, yes, parents in their homes.

A great first and second grade teacher named Kathy would tell the class at the beginning of the year, “Here, we have one rule: Be Kind.” Her classroom was magical. Having only “one rule” didn’t keep her from holding the line on other things like homework or cleaning up. The kids got it, and no one argued. Of course, they all wanted to work and play in an environment where everyone is kind. Saying there is “one rule” gave her leadership a name and her classroom culture a focal concept around which everyone could build something beautiful.

Even before they get to kindergarten, children have a great deal of experience seeking that point of mutuality between their self-interest and the interests of others. Of course! They want to have friends! In shaping empathy it’s best to start from the assumption that kids already have it, and then lead them to more effective expressions of it. Better to say, “Let me show you how to get what you want and build friendships at the same time” than to feel: “They are selfish; I am moral; I will teach them to share.”

The Highest and Best Use of a Cookie

One year, the fourth grade teachers decided to use their study of illegal immigration to get at the social problems in the class. In order to give the students a more personal understanding of some of the issues involved in immigration, three children were identified as ‘illegal immigrants’ for the day. All the other students were either ‘citizens’ or ‘lawful permanent residents.’ Throughout the morning the illegal immigrants, chosen at random, had to do extra jobs and missed out on fun things like recess.

At snack time, the teachers gave out cookies to everyone except the illegal immigrants. Most of the other kids noticed that this was cruel, but they accepted the rules of the game and ate their cookies anyway.

But Aisha very quietly snuck up to the illegal immigrants and whispered to them that she wanted to share her cookie, even if this meant she would be ‘sent to jail.’ She took them into the cloakroom and gave them her cookie to share.

All the kids felt bad for their classmates; Aisha did something about it. She was being smart about what she wanted; she judged the benefits of being kind—friendship, happy community, the thrill of giving—far outweighed the loss of the cookie.

The Big Payoff

When the teachers told me the story, I wrote “The Highest and Best Use of a Cookie” and sent it home with the students on Thursday. On Friday after school, I was on the street outside of the school as a group of fourth graders in their soccer uniforms were leaving school with their parents for soccer practice. They were eating their snacks as they walked. As they passed me, they greeted me with their usual “Hi, Mr. Rick,” but three of them offered me a cookie.

You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder if bringing up children in an empathetic culture like Kathy’s prepares them badly for a competitive, dog-eat-dog world, but my experience would suggest otherwise. Anecdotal data from hundreds of young people convinces me that 14-year-olds go off to high school stronger and ready for anything, if they have learned in grade school how to be skillful in their relationships.

Ultimately, our behavior reflects our culture. If the myth of home, school and society is that life is a race to the top of some pyramid, we get different results than if our myth is that the world needs each of us to find and discover our genius, and that our genius is not at all oblivious to the needs of others, but on the contrary, passionate about them.

Don’t try to “teach” empathy. Use empathy to create an environment where kids can learn how to practice the law of mutuality: It can’t really be good for me, unless it is also good for others.

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