The Case for Empathy

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Richard Weissbourd, who directs the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard, notes the difficulty of encouraging or teaching empathy today: “It’s hard to have a shared morality when you don’t have a shared reality,” he says. But for that very reason, Weissbourd and his colleagues see a more-than-ever urgency in trying to do so. And they are convinced we can succeed: “I think learning empathy is like playing an instrument or learning a sport. It’s a lot about practice.”

These are heartening words to teachers of writing, who strive to build an ethos of trust and empathy in their classrooms in order to support respectful listening and openness to learning, even from those with differing perspectives—perhaps especially from those with differing perspectives. But teachers know, too, that practicing empathy doesn’t mean always agreeing with everyone, or always being agreeable. As one of my students put it, “I feel for someone I know who is into conspiracy theories that have been proven false and dangerous. But I don’t ‘feel’ for those theories or his argument about them.” In short, being empathetic doesn’t mean simply going along with any old thing. We can—and often need to—state our disagreements very strongly; but we can do so without rejecting the humanity of with whom we disagree.

Students probably know empathy when they see it, but in my experience, they have some difficulty in defining it. If you are working to build and practice empathy in your classroom, a little definitional assignment can be one place to begin. Scholars often speak of three kinds or aspects of empathy: cognitive empathy, which attempts to understand other people’s points of view—and why they hold them; emotional empathy, which is the ability and willingness to “walk in the shoes” of another person, to try to experience what they are experiencing; and ethical empathy, which is having compassion and concern for another person. Weissbourd argues that true empathy calls for all three. 

The Making Caring Common Project aims to help parents teach their children this three-part empathy, partly by talking openly about feelings and emotions, helping them understand what other people feel (with lots of examples drawn from their own experience), and addressing issues of bias and stereotypes in themselves as well as in others. These are all practices that teachers of writing can and do employ. Earlier in my teaching career, I tended to take empathy for granted, just assuming that my students and I were empathetic by nature. But by the time I had taught for several years, I met students who seemed to be without empathy or the capacity for it. And I began to question my own capacity for empathy as well, noting times in my teaching and in my life when I was anything but “naturally” empathetic.

And so I began, slowly, to bring definitions and examples and discussions of empathy into my classes, to ask students to explore the concept with me and to keep a personal log or journal where they could record instances of empathy or its lack in themselves as well as in others. It was very slow going at first, but usually a little beyond midterm, most students were gaining valuable insights into themselves and their behavior toward others. Not all, certainly. But most. We began to look for contributions to our “found empathy” project, bringing in examples of empathy at work in the world around us and writing and talking about it. 

I can’t say that I have learned how to “teach” empathy, even now, but I have learned to identify it (and the lack of it) and to define and exemplify and discuss it with students in everyday language. I have learned to spot my own lack of empathy—or misplaced or mistaken empathy, and tried to learn from them. I have encouraged and challenged students to do the same, and to consciously practice empathy. 

In these times of deep division—of white supremacy and unbridled racism, of hate speech and deliberate misinformation campaigns—we need to teach critical thinking and critical language awareness. But we also need to teach empathy.


Image by Toa Heftiba reproduced under the Unsplash license.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.