Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Have A Care

I just read about a study that Harvard University just released which has addressed a subject that to me is quite frankly all over the news lately, albeit maybe not in very obvious ways.

em•pa•thy [em’-puh-thee] /n/ (1) the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. (2) the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: “By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.”  [Origin: from the Greek: empátheia (affection); present meaning translates German Einfühlung]

Boiled down, the study has suggested that although parents have good intentions about teaching children the value of empathy, the message that ends up getting sent is: American society values achievement and happiness far more. The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Making Caring Common” project surveyed 10,000 secondary-school students and only a fifth of them ranked “caring for others” as their first priority. Empathy lost out to achieving at a high level, or being happy. The researchers noted the difference between which values adults tell children are important, and which they demonstrate as actually being important.

Students were reportedly two times more likely to agree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

In the Atlantic magazine article that highlighted the study, child psychologist and author Michele Borba said:

Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health, wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized.

The Harvard researchers surveyed educators as well.

[ An aside: Character education has very often been seen as a squishy, bleeding-heart-liberal, unrealistic enterprise. It has the opportunity to be not taught very well. Indeed, some critics might say, isn’t character education more of a Sunday School thing? (The increasing percentage of the American population that is “unchurched”, and what effect that may or may not have on people’s development of a moral and ethical compass, is probably a topic best reserved for a separate moment. It would become a rather staggeringly large tangent here.) ]

The researchers found that “the great majority of teachers, administrators, and school staff did not see parents as prioritizing caring in child-raising. About 80% of school adults viewed parents as prioritizing their children’s achievement above caring and a similar percentage viewed parents as prioritizing happiness over caring.”

I don’t know that this should be seen as an attempt to dump on parents exclusively – although obviously they do bear responsibility. Parents in today’s society face far greater challenges in raising children than did past generations’ parents. One of those challenges is in countering the messages conveyed, overtly or not, by the “outside world” – including the media, popular culture personalities, and political figures. Many of these messages seem not to be supportive of “everything that makes a society civilized”.

Curious: while it’s rarely advisable to wade through the comments section of almost any online article … the very first commenter on the Atlantic article said, as if to simultaneously miss and prove the researchers’ point:

Children should prioritize helping others over their own success and happiness? What exactly would be the societal benefit of raising an entire generation of sacrificial martyrs unable to support themselves? … The most important thing for children to learn is that if they are unable to first support themselves, they won’t be able to make meaningful contributions to society. Ever wonder why any course on rescue teaches people to first ensure their own health and safety before attending to others? There’s an order of operations involved, and people who sacrifice their own well-being for that of others end up in dire straits.

Let’s see that again in slow motion: “people who sacrifice their own well-being for that of others end up in dire straits.” As in, I got mine, because if I don’t, I won’t, and you’ll have gotten in my way.

I recognize that this is pretty much human nature … caveman logic. Survival, and all that. … Have we not gotten a little ways past that, having scraped together the trappings of civilization and all?

Beyond the fact that this paragraph could be seen as a veiled jab at welfare recipients and other people that are labeled in some corners as “takers” … Mitt Romney’s forty-seven percent, you might say … I wonder if that commenter had ever heard of the Golden Rule.

Also, consider this: in her analysis of the study, psychologist Borba said, “The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids care about others, they are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, and a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.”

Makes one wonder how happy of a person that commenter might be.

It also makes me wonder what all this may suggest about the sources of the following quotes from the news recently? … people who don’t appear to give a wet slap about the actual people at whom they’re aiming their words:

[] An offering from the columnist George Will. Will’s career has been marked by utilization of SAT words seemingly just to prove he’s an above-average writer – to set himself apart from the monosyllabic, grunting world of the New York Post and Page Three or whatever. In this case, those words may attempt to deflect your average reader from noticing (at least right away) a breathtaking lack of empathy:

Colleges and universities … are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

Cutting to the chase: is this an implication that rape victims somehow enjoy a privileged status that future victims might aspire to? Have I got that wrong? Didn’t Todd Aiken’s “legitimate rape” comments last year clearly mark that particular tract of land so that other people wouldn’t blunder onto it? Tiny question: Mr. Will, have you, or any member of your extended family, or any of your close friends, ever been sexually assaulted? Do you, therefore, have any faint clue what you’re talking about? Is it any wonder that rape victims hesitate to report the crime, if they’re going to be met with responses remotely like yours?

(The St. Louis Dispatch decided to dispatch Mr. Will as a regular op-ed contributor following that column. Would that more newspapers had done so.)

[] After the mass-murder committed in Santa Barbara last month by Elliot Rodger, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (better known as “Joe the Plumber”) addressed the parents of the college kids who were killed:

I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: [a]s harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional [Second Amendment, gun-ownership] rights.

Uh, yeah; harsh begins to cover it, I suppose.  I wonder, would Mr. Plumber have the grit to say that to Richard Martinez’s face?

Throughout his open letter, which is far longer than that opening paragraph, Wurzelbacher reveals that as much as he would like to have you believe he cares about you, he cares far more about himself.

[] After the Santa Barbara shootings, there was this Tweet (which I won’t embed here, but merely quote, because the man doesn’t deserve the click-throughs to his Twitter feed):

No idea how my son will die, but I know it won’t be cowering like a bitch at UC Santa Barbara. Any son of mine would have been shooting back.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the former General Counsel and Executive Director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon. I wonder if his Tweet would have been different if he had ever found himself staring down the business end of a loaded weapon held by an unhinged person, or in fact any person at all. I never have, so I can’t say for sure what I’d tweet. But his thought just seemed pretty heartless to me.

Now, for contrast:

[] Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said something just in the last few days, about the rapidly-deteriorating situation in Iraq, and what the American military might or might not be preparing to do about it, that struck me as particularly empathetic. Or maybe it just seemed so by contrast to almost everything else I’ve heard lately:

You have to ask yourself, are you willing to send your son, am I willing to send my son to retake back a city, Mosul, that they [the residents of Mosul] weren’t willing to defend themselves? I’m not willing to send my son into that mess.

I had to go back and listen to the video clip containing these words all over again … just to make sure I’d heard him correctly. Writer Charlie Pierce has posited a Ron/Rand Paul Five-Minute Rule, which is, anything they say may well strike you as sensible, but at the five-minute mark of their speech they say something completely off-the-charts absurd. Also, in general, a politician will start to make a statement and I’m reminded of the old joke, “how do you know a politician is lying? You can see his lips move.” Sadly, my immediate assumption is that I’m about to listen to something appalling, corrupt, or otherwise miserable.

It’s one thing to say incendiary things because you feel there’s injustice being done and such comments seem the only way to speak truth to power, as it were. It’s another thing to say inflammatory things just to get attention, to satisfy your own id, to get your name upon people’s lips.

Further, an awful lot of people now feel free to say insensitive things about actual human beings, in order to bolster a political position (and for no other good earthly reason), and trust that they won’t get called on it. When there are this many insensitive louts out there, each individual one begins to be less obvious.

But some of our public discourse now seems genuinely cruel, if less and less unusual.

I don’t honestly know what to do about it, aside from [1] calling it out when it happens, and [2] endeavoring to treat people decently, in person and in print, myself.

Again, it’s a start.


June 26, 2014 - Posted by | current events, education, language, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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