Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.
We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.
“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”
Now, according to a piece in Forbes magazine last December, “research, by Rice University sociologist (Erin Cech) who also has a degree in electrical engineering, finds that engineering students graduate from college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered. . . Cech says her findings suggest that topics relating to empathy and public welfare need to be integrated into all of engineering undergraduates’ coursework.”
In reality, the subject of empathy has moved, of late, out of the health and wellness community and into the marketplace, itself. Some economists are even treating it like a verifiable, measurable commodity in a world that appears to be running out of the stuff.
“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail last summer. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”
But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.
In fact, one of the central tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education (ECE) is teaching empathy to preschoolers. Putting oneself in another person’s shoes. Coping with strong emotions, especially one’s own. Understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.
That’s not to say that such environments don’t exist in other settings: schools, community centers and homes. Of course they do. Indeed, far too much time and energy have been invested in the rhetoric of divisiveness, as if the institutions devoted to children’s welfare ought to operate separately behind locked doors.
What a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE should do is open all the doors of the village, as it were.
“The feeling of being included is a prerequisite for early learning,” states the groundbreaking Canadian Early Years Study 3. “Children and their families are part of broader communities: neighbourhood, faith, ethnocultural, school professional and workplace. Children bring traditional practices, values, beliefs and the experiences of family and community to early childhood programs. Their sense of inclusion increases in environments that allow their full participation and promotes attitudes, beliefs and values of equity and democracy.”
This, of course, is how empathy begins to take root in the child and, with hard work, faith and forbearance, grow to full flower in the adult.