Humanist Perspective: How Empathy Educates
Jason Aldean — the silver-tongued country cutie — once said it best.
“The simplest things in life are the most meaningful,” he said in 2004 while making the moody, acoustic video for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
That one quote, among a long list of wordsmithing gems of the heart, is proving to be particularly true for educators this year.
Intentionally embracing a humanist mindset may allow schools to better match students with the necessary tools for creating communities of compassion that translate into productive learning. Research shows that empathy is both a capacity we can cultivate and a mindset — a certain approach to thinking about and understanding others that goes beyond winning or losing a “battle of the wits.”
“A humanist view is based on the belief that all people should have rights and our world would be more peaceful if we managed our resources more equitably,” explains Hannah Fuchs, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
Empathy knows no race or class barriers
Nonconformity is thriving in American society. More than 51% of adults reported feeling left out in a 2015 study and 33% reported feeling they had the wrong opinions.
One way to combat this trend is learning ways to know yourself better, Fuchs says. But, as her research has shown, empathy isn’t about equality, it’s about empathy.
“It’s more nuanced than that,” she explains. “Empathy is a capacity, but it’s also knowledge of oneself.”
Within that capacity, empathy seems to stem from a context not a certain group, she says. It’s the blend of empathy for oneself and empathy for others.
That’s why it’s increasingly important for school administrators to foster a humanist worldview. As students, humans play a fundamental role in the greater community of today. They come together in school after school, play together in after-school activities, help out on community service projects, and go home together. Their current academic outcome is an individualized component of community.
Forcing students to confront your own biases isn’t an effective way to bring about peace, says Fuchs. Empathy, she says, is a skill.
“You could build up empathy without teaching empathy. The easiest way to do that is to build a humanist community,” she explains. “This means that relationships become the new backbone of your learning.”
Building feelings of empathy means “you build trust with all of your fellow students and colleagues in such a way that they want to be a part of your learning,” explains Matthew Sanell, a professor of education at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Empathy inspires empathy
Fuchs stresses that the humanist approach can’t be taught by K-12 schools alone. “It should be a holistic educational approach,” she says.
She often views interactions between humans as a model for understanding people of different backgrounds.
“In a way, being human is a journey. We are built with a lot of the same organs and muscles, but there are these different networks that make us different,” she explains.
Building empathy, and empathy for others, can be as simple as reframing issues.
Students and teachers can openly discuss tough issues such as school safety, poverty, bullying and prejudice and help each other better understand their teammates’ and classmates’ perspectives. In the classroom, sharing empathy can be as simple as building an understanding of someone’s unique perspectives in larger conversations or as challenging as staging public events.
For students who don’t have families with the resources to pursue international studies, the humanist approach may be the best choice for their school education.
All educators can adapt to developing empathy
“Many students today are developing behaviors that act like an innate ability,” notes Sanell. Yet, he says, educators need a training that helps them build on those skills. “Increasingly, teachers and administrators are having to adapt in today’s society to encourage people to make wiser choices and grow up with an expectation of empathy,” he says.
But what can any teacher — no matter their credentials — do to foster an approach that connects to students’ potential? The same way Aldean relies on his stage persona to connect to his audience: by being himself.
“I try to put myself out there and then find a way to incorporate that into who I am,” he explained in 2004. “And those things, they make me.”