Imagining a Department of Empathy
Higher Hopes for Higher Education
by Jay McDaniel
Education for the Whole Person
I am standing by the water cooler at the college where I teach. Along with me there are some friends: a student, a cafeteria worker, an administrator, and a fellow teacher.
We have just seen the video you find at the bottom of this page. It is an animated version of a talk given by a prominent philosopher, Roman Krznaric. We can't pronounce his last name but we sure like his ideas. He thinks empathy is an art form, and we do, too.
At one point in his short talk he imagines an Empathy Museum. It is kind of like an art gallery, except filled with opportunities for empathy. We begin to wonder if our college might develop a Department of Empathy. We think we'll need a whole building.
Empathy Begins with Listening
As you enter you will find a human library where you can borrow people for conversations. We borrow the idea from Krznaric. The people will listen to you in active ways, helping you understand what it is like to be listened to. Then you can try listening to them, too.
It will take a little time to learn to listen; if you have an agitated mind, you may need to do a little Zen meditation first. Or yoga. There will need to be a room with some prayer benches and meditation cushions.
In the next room there will be laborers from Vietnam working at sewing machines, who will teach you how to make t-shirts under sweatshop conditions. Again, we borrow the idea from Krznaric. They will pay you for the shirt you've made, about a penny a shirt. You can use the penny to help pay for your coffee in the cafeteria.
In the cafeteria, you can order coffee, but you'll need to go pick the beans with laborers from Columbia. It will take a long time to pick the beans. Your hands might be scratched. You might need to bring some gloves.
Empathy With Fellow Creatures
In the lawn there will be dogs and cats, into whose eyes you look and perhaps (with the dogs) receive a little unconditional love.
They will want to be petted. If you are afraid of animals we have skilled teachers, specialists in animal-assisted therapy, who can help you overcome your fears. You'll need to recognize that touch is one of the gentlest and most important ways of realizing empathy.
And just at the outskirts of the building there will be a very nice organic garden, with weeds to be pulled and tomatoes to grow, so that you can learn empathy with the earth.
A horticulturalist will be on staff showing how knowledge about tomatoes and a feeling for tomatoes go together. She'll quote the Nobel Prize winning geneticist, Evelyn Fox Keller, who talked about how good science always involves "a feeling for the organism."
If you want Justice, seek Empathy
There will be lots of art, some of it made by human beings and other by nature. On the grounds there will sculptures: Francis of Assisi feeding the birds and Martin Luther King feeding the hunger for justice.
There might even be a little sign in front of King's statue saying: "If you want justice seek empathy." And there will also be provocative sculptures displaying greed, hatred, and cruelty, just to remind us all of what non-empathy looks like.
There will be lots of collaboration with other departments on campus: engineering, medicine, biology, business, history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, religious studies, music, and dance, for example,
These departments will teach their own subjects, introducing students to their methodologies, but they will also sponsor undergraduate research on what we can learn about empathy from the sciences, arts, and humanities.
Who knows, someone might even develop an interdisciplinary major called Biology and Empathy. Or Inter-Religious Dialogue and Empathy. Or Economics and Empathy.
Certified in the Arts of Empathy
But you really don't need a major. You can earn a certificate in "the arts of empathy" by taking courses that encourage affective and cognitive empathy. Prospective employers will will know that, even as you have your business skills or other practical skills, you are also trained in the ultimate art form, empathy itself.
You can think critically and thoughtfully, imaginatively and empathically. You can solve problems, not by imposing your will on others but by listening to them and seeing what is needed.
You are a whole person.
* Acknowledgment: The idea that empathy is an art form comes from the video below, as do many of the ideas in this short thought experiment. Readers of JJB know that process theology is all about empathy. We believe that the evolving universe is enfolded in an inclusive Soul whose very essence is empathy, sharing in the subjective states of entities and responding with fresh possibilities relative to the situation at hand. And we believe that human beings become whole by developing our skills for creativity, understanding, and empathy, each in our way. We call it relational theology. This is why process thinkers are so taken by the work of the philosopher Roman Krznaric, whose talk for the Royal Society of the Arts has been rendered into animated form in the video. above.