Should We Teach Empathy in College?

Nearly every summer of my life, I’ve spent some time at the Chautauqua Institution along the shore of Lake Chautauqua in the Southwestern corner of New York state. Founded in 1874, Chautauqua offers morning lectures in an open-air amphitheater, afternoon lectures in a structure known as the Hall of Philosophy, and a symphony, ballet, or other performance at night. In other words, it’s the type of place a think-tank nerd like me finds highly appealing.

This summer, I visited during a week devoted to “21st-Century Women” and heard a number of terrific lectures, including one by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, who spoke about the role of women on the U.S. Supreme Court. As part of her talk, she recounted what she called “Empathy-gate,” the controversy over President Obama’s desire to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who are not only analytically brilliant but also can understand the real-life consequences of decisions on every day Americans. While conservatives opposed the “empathy” standard as lacking rigor and promoting possible bias, Lithwick argued, quite persuasively, that empathy is an entirely appropriate and desirable quality for a member of the Supreme Court, which in our democratic system of dispersed power has a special role in protecting minorities from overreaching majorities.

The discussion brought to mind the question: In higher education, should colleges affirmatively seek to teach students empathy or is doing so inappropriate because it is unrelated to academic achievement and might be overtly political? According to a recent article by Eric Leake in Miller-McCune, Capital University, a private college located near Columbus, Ohio, is engaged in the “Empathy Experiment,” an eight-week program in which students spend a day in a wheelchair, go a night without eating, experience a temporary eviction, and sleep in a homeless shelter. (Students don’t receive academic credit for the program.)

The Empathy Experiment is meant in part to counteract what a University of Michigan researcher found is a decline in empathy among college students today compared with similar students two to three decades ago. Researchers aren’t clear about why students are less empathetic than they used to be, though there are a number of interesting theories, as this recent Chronicle commentary piece notes.

One question worth exploring is whether the growing economic privilege of college students, particularly on selective campuses, has something to do with declines in empathy. While we’ve made progress in making campuses more racially and ethnically diverse, economic stratification is increasing so that rich kids outnumber poor kids by 25:1 in the 146 most selective colleges and universities. When very few of their classmates struggle with the economic questions that face huge numbers of Americans, it may be harder and harder for privileged students to relate to the concerns of every day people. Until we actually diversify institutions by economic status, so that peers and classmates can explain the challenges faced by working-class people, teaching empathy through role-playing may be the next best thing.

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