A little empathy can be dangerous

21st March 2008 at 00:00
American Educational Research Association: Next week's New York conference will hear about a sulky Romeo and lessons from Harry Potter

The use of empathy to enhance a pupil's understanding of a topic or concept can be a dangerous tool if not used carefully.

Teachers regularly ask pupils to consider what they learn in light of their own experiences. But Kate Behr, of Concordia College in New York, says this technique can cloud objective judgement and engender morally questionable values.

Dr Behr will be presenting her findings at next week's annual American Educational Research Association conference in New York, where hundreds of academics from Britain, Europe and the US will meet to discuss the latest developments in educational research.

Papers will range from the pedagogical and theoretical to the personal and quirky. They will cover topics as diverse as neuroscience in education, multicultural Europe and Harry Potter, while researchers such as Dr Behr will use the conference to examine different aspects of teaching practice.

In her paper questioning the value of empathy in the classroom, she writes: "As educators, we rely on the power of empathy... as a way to involve our students in what we are reading or teaching. We want students to identify in some way with the material. We want them to see its relevance: the language might be difficult, but the emotions are eternal."

But this can cause problems. For example, teenagers are encouraged to identify with fictional characters to the extent of overlooking any flaws. "Without audience empathy, Romeo is a sulky teenager who needs to grow up and stop falling in love with every girl he meets," writes Dr Behr. "If we saw him only as a young man who dumps one girl to have sex with another, would we feel as indulgent? Maybe not."

Empathy is also a response to an individual, rather than a group. Dr Behr questions why it is acceptable for the entire crew of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to die, merely to redeem the soul of "one idiot hunter".

It also plays a key role in the "misery memoir", much loved by secondary pupils. These create unrealistic expectations of reality: readers feel the author's pain, secure in the guarantee of a happy ending.

The necessarily self-referential nature of empathy is also dangerous, Dr Behr believes. Teachers should be careful that pupils do not use empathetic responses merely to confirm their own prejudices: "If the strength of our empathetic response is a measure of right and wrong, then right is invariably on the side of the most pathetic victim in... our eyes," she writes.

Dr Behr concludes that empathy is a dangerous tool, which teachers should use with care. Pupils should be encouraged to move beyond simply appropriating another person's feelings as a means of understanding alien concepts. Teachers should ask them to question who they are empathising with and why.

"We encourage them to empathise," she writes. "Should we also warn them of its... dangers?"

Kate.Behr@concordia-ny.edu.

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