“What dooms our best efforts to cultivate empathy and compassion is always, of course, other people.” (Tim Kreider)

We are in the midst of a remarkable paradigm shift – or, more accurately, waves of reinforcing shifts.   Across an extraordinary range of knowledge projects, whether (among others) social neuroscience, evolutionary ethics, social anthropology, or moral psychology, a striking convergence is unfolding around our understandings of the way we reason, feel, choose and develop new knowledge.  One story is how these emerging understandings, often referred to collectively as an “affective revolution”, open the doors to transformative possibilities in education.

As the chapters of this story are scattered across such a diverse collection of disciplines, it is unsurprising that educators have yet to fully assimilate or exploit these emerging insights.  We are missing, for now, extraordinary possibilities to move our ideas & practice forward.  This is an unfortunate – but not inevitable – omission.

In this series of blogs..

I will present, piece by piece, research which I believe collectively suggests new approaches to holistic learner development both within & beyond the classroom context.  Each blog is centred around a specific piece of leading contemporary research in education, moral psychology or elsewhere in the cognitive or human sciences. Though I intend to build towards a case for positive educational programmes, I begin with a problem.

This problem relates to the extent to which we empathise with one another and whether, as is suggested in several studies, the social fabric of empathic connections is progressively unravelling. English Riots, sexual violence in south Asia, multiple shootings in the United States – a grim host of social phenomena now, once again, thrust issues of morality & moral education into the public sphere. Those of us engaged in empathy research & education are especially keen to capitalise on a possible opportunity to develop methodologies which nurture empathic dispositions & behaviour.

The outcry over Facebook’s astonishing (& short lived) & recent decision to relax its policy concerning access by their users (who may officially be as young as 13) to posts containing real & graphic footage of extreme was understandable & entirely justified.  There is no need to add to media reflection on the power exposure to such material has to desensitise young people to the suffering of others.  That young people have increasing access to harrowing & haunting images would seem to be uncontroversial.  The more essential question is to what extent this ubiquitous and unprecedented exposure is reshaping the way we relate to the suffering of others.

Recent studies by psychologists at the University of Michigan suggest that levels of dispositional empathy are indeed in flux across the generations.  Exploring changes in dispositional empathy over time, the U Michigan team  found that declines have occurred n both “Perspective-Taking” (understanding what goes on in other minds) & Empathic Concern (caring about the welfare of others), with the latter suffering the most marked decrease during the period under review (1979 – 2009).

The Michigan findings suggest that members of “Generation Me” (See Jean Twenge, 2006) are characterised by a growing  narcissism (negatively correlated with empathic feelings) and assertion that, perhaps unsurprisingly, growing narcissism shifts concern to oneself at the expense of others.  In isolation, these findings should be enough to prompt critical reflection in educators. When we include recent insight into negative correlations between bullying & empathy and apparent connection between disciplinary styles and empathy (perhaps unsurprisingly, parents who effectively promote empathy are low in controlling punishment styles) all suggest that empathy’s correlates and catalysts are of direct relevance to educational discourse.

Suggestions of social media’s possibly pernicious role in empathic decline are among the provocative, if relatively undeveloped aspects of the Michigan studies – & certainly something which give us, as parents & educators, pause for further reflection. On the whole, the Michigan studies present more concerns than answers relating to how our understandings of, & concern for, one another appear to be shifting.   My next post relates the more sanguine story of the ameliorative possibilities of programmes such as the The Roots of Empathy which seek address this alleged generational decline in empathy – & its very real impact in our on/offline learning communities.

Copyright | © 2013 | Timothy Walters