Why Discuss Empathy?

Why is empathy one of ASH’s core values, and why do many design and learning approaches begin with empathy? How does this help? Empathy is, at its root, the ability to look at any situation from someone else’s perspective or point of view. This is fundamental to learning because it helps us move out of ourselves and our immediate reactions into a different level of abstraction. 

How Empathy Helps Us Learn
Other than simple repetition and motor memory, we know learning is fundamentally the ability to break out of the immediate and make sense of objects, ideas, and feelings in an abstract way. This could be through time (understanding the past and predicting how something might happen in the future), space (modeling processes and structures either intangible or invisible to the human eye), or the inner world (the psychology and emotion of need and fulfillment, for example). In essence, all abstract, mental learning requires some form of perspective-taking or putting ourselves into another frame of mind and exploring the world from that perspective. This is a rather dispassionate way of looking at basic empathy, and it’s not really the reason it is in our core values.

Empathy and Building a Better World
People are more accustomed to thinking of empathy in terms of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. For example, a dispute with a neighbor can often be de-escalated by seeking to understand the neighbor’s perspective before pushing one’s own agenda. When we truly understand each other’s perspective, problems diminish, even though they may not completely disappear. This is why the ASH core value description of empathy involves valuing others and understanding that people believe and behave differently in the same circumstances. This kind of empathy contributes to furthering relationships and hopefully happiness and contentment all around. This is one way we make the world a better place, but this is not to say everyone is happy all the time or every moment looks like a picture postcard. Making the world  a better place requires hard work, tough decisions, and the knowledge necessary to enact solutions.

Empathy Does Not Mean Anything Goes
As we will explore empathy further in our school publications, it is important to be clear about what empathy is NOT. Practicing empathy does not mean everyone is right about everything and we should not question what is best. It does not mean we stop looking out for the good of the community because everyone has his or her own perspective, so who are we to say something is wrong? This is a slippery slope. It is crucial that we hold ourselves and others accountable for their actions in service of the greater good of the community. This is true at school, in our neighborhoods, and on the global stage. There are certain behaviors that do not contribute to the greater good, and we cannot shy away from confronting those behaviors and striving either to change them or to distance ourselves from them. Standards of conduct are crucial in any community. We will further explore ways to practice empathy and how to contribute to everyone’s growth and development in future entries.

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