Is empathy the most important thing we can teach our students?

Mr Daniel Addis, Head of Academic Scholarship and Teacher of Classics at WHS, looks at the purpose of education, and asks whether empathy could be the key skill students should develop in an academic environment.
Whenever one considers what education is for, there are several arguments that immediately sprout up. There is a ‘Scholar Academic’ (SA)[1] perspective that suggests there is a key set of knowledge that students need to know in order to be upstanding members of society. The ‘Social Efficiency’ (SE) model argues that it is skills that are imperative to learning in order to prepare students for life in the workplace, whereas the ‘Learner Centred’ (LC) model suggests that content is immaterial; students should have the opportunity to study whatever they desire to benefit themselves. Finally the ‘Social Reconstruction’ (SR) model suggests that education’s main imperative is to facilitate the creation of a more just society, based on the balance between different groups, whether that is racial, class-based, or other forms of segregation.

The true answer presumably lies in a combination of these different models, but I would argue that empathy is the link upon which all of them rely. Empathy is the key knowledge, the important skill, the centre for the learner, and the methodology through which we can create a more-just society.

Nussbaum, in her excellent work Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities[2], discusses how empathy requires three things.

  1. A child who knows how to do things for themselves
  2. Recognition that total control is neither possible nor good, that the world is a place in which we all have weaknesses and we need to find ways to support one another
  3. An awareness of solidarity and the idea that we are not alone

Each of the 4 models of curriculum I mentioned have part of these three aspects in them. In the SA it is a solidarity gained by the shared experience of learning the same key material along with understanding of the past that demonstrates the lack of total control in the world; in the SE it is developing children’s ability to do things for themselves; in the LC it is also the development of the students’ ability to do things, along with supporting them individually; and in the SR it is the concept of solidarity amongst peers, and support of others. The fact that part of if not all of these key facets of developing empathy are in each curriculum model demonstrates how important it is to students’ education.

Though all the models have different aims, aspirations, history, ideology, and conceptual understanding, Empathy runs through them all. This is eminently understandable. In E.D Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know[3], he lists facts, figures and great works of literature that he considers a key part of any western education. The list has a strong historical bias, requiring students to learn the history of culture and society. This develops a cultural empathy, understanding of where we have come from, as well as helping us understand and relate to other cultures our students might come across in future.

Photo by Tatiana Vavrikova from Pexels

According to Nussbaum “seeing how another group of intelligent human beings has cut up the world differently… gives a young person an essential lesson in cultural humility.”[4]  Coming across something different which requires greater study and further analysis helps students to understand their experiences as it is comparatively more different to their own. The fact the traditions and models are more unfamiliar allows students to develop analytical tools they can use in other spheres. Their analytical ability is honed further as it is used by the student dissecting more peculiar practices. When considering the greater intellectual difference, the similarities become more poignant, and the nature of combined human experience can imbue students with an awareness of solidarity between peoples, something required for empathy.[5]

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From a pastoral perspective, empathy is something that is an obvious focus to develop in young people, but a blending of the academic and pastoral is important in this setting. It is only by intellectually engaging with alternative information and different perspectives through academic learning that empathy is fully developed. It is enhanced through questioning, analytical rigour and searching for deeper meaning rather than, as can be the case in PSHE, something that is assumed. We all consider ourselves to be empathetic but by questioning information from other sources comes a stronger empathy, not a facile, ethereal thing, which can lead to more substantial change.

If we look more closely at some of the material covered in class, we can question the inherent benefit. What is the purpose of learning about life in Chaucer’s England? Would it make much difference in someone’s life to know about life in a Roman household? Perhaps the facts themselves are not important. But by comparing their own experience with others, students can gain a more concrete understanding of the beneficial aspects of their own life. This, in turn, can help them understand other cultures around the world, other people, new information which will prove a vital skill for their later life. With the rate the world is changing, being able to intellectually adapt and understand the needs of others is one of the core skills our students need to possess.

Whilst I do believe that some knowledge is inherently beneficial (I would hardly be a Classicist if I didn’t!), it is important to remember the overall purpose of what we do at school. By putting empathy at the front and centre of the learning experience, we not only develop analytical ability, but we also develop better people who can utilise a different perspective, challenge assumptions and develop their understanding of others. In this way, we give them the tools to change the world, building on our shared past, in order to develop our best future.


[1] The four terms I use for curriculum ideologies are found in Schiro, M. S. (2013) Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns 2.e.; Sage Publishers. p. 4. There are other terms used by other authors but these four are the clearest.

[2] Nussbaum (2010) Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 97

[3] Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know; Incidentally this was the key text upon which the 2015 UK governmental education policy was based.

[4] Nussbaum (2010), 90

[5] Ibid, 97