Teach the Earth > Affective Domain > Dilemmas about Teaching > Empathy

Empathy

Dilemma

Lensyl Urbano, LeeAnn Srogi

Students in a small upper level class discussing global warming students argue that anything we do to "save" the environment is worth any cost and ultimately benefits everyone equally. We explain that a person in another country might be willing to accept a degraded environment in exchange for economic improvement. Students are willing to accept that as an intellectual argument but it becomes clear in subsequent discussions that they did not change their arguments to accommodate this idea. We think there are affective barriers to this cognitive change that prevent the deeper understanding of the difference in perspective. What are the attitudes of students toward people in the developing world that might impede their ability to empathize.

We suspect attitudes might include:

  • Infantilizing people in the developing world (We know what's best/our culture is superior/we can solve their problem)
  • Students just don't care (It's halfway around the world and I can't help these people)
  • Students can't comprehend/imagine the scale of poverty that might cause people to have radically different perspectives.
  • For students to change their perspectives may be threatening to their sense of self and unacknowledged privilege. Their conception that they're good people yet they don't want to have to deal with dire poverty.

Responses

Kelly Rocca, Jeff Johnston, Jennifer Husman, Todd Zakrajsek

  1. Cognitive barrier is real—the students probably do not know and understand the cultural differences. Many students may have a lack of knowledge, and others may not want to think about things emotionally because it can be depressing to think of how others live in comparison to traditional American culture.
  2. Students will need to know the information, know about different cultures, how people live, how the way that we live interacts with this, etc., and they also need to figure out a way to use empathy in this knowledge.
  3. Possible idea of "affective scaffolding" which provides a way for students to experience appropriate emotions as a part of the learning process, rather than as interfering with the content. This concept was coined by Jennifer Husman's colleague (she can provide more information).
  4. Part of this cannot be changed due to the idea of "ethnocentrism." People will view things through the eyes of their culture and make judgments based on seeing the world through a particular lens. It happens in all cultures, and with all people—educated or uneducated. So, this dilemma can be helped, but not necessarily completely resolved, especially in the short time frame of one semester.
  5. Part of this may be helped by exposing students to those who are different around the world, having them volunteer, meet with those from different cultures, explaining how similar issues impact different groups (students of privilege have different issues than those in the developing world). Connect the "strangers" to something more tangible - reduce the anonymity.
  6. Give students examples of what things can really cost if funding goes into a certain area, and thus, takes away from another area. Explain the impact of the system—one area impacting another. Each decision impacts another part of the whole system.

Empathy  

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