1. Wow. If the majority of people believed in the possibility for reconciliation, that humanity could rise after an incident like this and become more compassionate…Wouldn’t the world be a much better place?

    All of a sudden, there have been several articles in the Higher Ed circles about this generation of students (at least in the U.S.) being the least empathic of any previous group. The conversation continues by asking what is the role of higher ed in “teaching” empathy (if that is possible). Suggestions of having students live in a homeless shelter for a night, or going hungry for a few days, are followed by suggestions of meaningful community service that addresses poverty and inequality. International travel to almost anywhere in the Global South has the potential to open up the minds of students, but does it necessarily cause them to truly care? To change their own lives?


  2. Thanks for a really thoughtful piece, Steve.

    Teryl, I wasn’t able to listen to all of Johan Galtung’s piece. I appreciated his critique of the word “terrorism” as an American oversimplification. Of course Syria’s Assad is using that term now to justify his crack-down of protesters.

    Diane, I’ve heard of the decline of empathy. I’m wondering how we used to learn it if this is so.

    For another perspective, see David Warren’s column, “A postmodern pact with the devil.” http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/07/28/a_post-modern_pact_with_the_devil_110746.html

  3. @ Sam: I don’t know that we previously “learned” empathy or if it can be taught. Our society (in the industrialized nations) has changed its values and priorities and it seems to me that empathy is not longer part of our culture. My colleague wrote an interesting piece on Cuba as an empathic nation (with all the health care they deliver to impoverished places in Africa, Haiti, etc.). In a spring class, my students read this paper and we also looked at models of sustainable practices in Cuba. They were amazed (their preconceived views of this country are of course, U.S. centered and very different) and they were entralled and wanted to learn more. Not sure if my colleagues appreciate me teaching that maybe there are lessons to be learned in countries we have embargoes against!

  4. Theories:
    – I read somewhere that since empathy has survival value, our race must have had it collectively encoded into our DNA.
    – From our earliest days, our “primary caregivers” (these used to be called mothers) have demonstrated and expressed empathy to us in our tears for feeding, changing, etc.
    This is the old nature/nurture debate, which isn’t as either/or as we somtimes put it.

    This of course doesn’t explain how we might be losing it. Or how a godless country like Cuba might have retained it!

  5. Thank you Sam and Diane for intriguing thoughts. Appreciate it. Perhaps empathy is epigenetically coded. That is, it must be shown, modelled, before it can be properly triggered in an observing other.

    And a thought on Cuba Sam: is it possible to be godless and empathetic at the same time? But I suspect your tongue was finding your cheek:)

  6. I am fascinated by the idea that empathy might be epigenetic. This is such a new and puzzling and exciting area of science but one that helps to bridge the nature vs. nuture debate and allows for hope that we can change! (Individuals and a societal culture).

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