Teaching Empathy to the ‘Me’ Generation
A Midwestern university experiments in teaching empathy not merely through classroom curriculum, but by having students live the lives of the working poor.
The banner on the side of the Capital University music conservatory has an outline of a sneaker and asks, “They walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. How much did they learn?”
Inside the hall in Columbus, Ohio, a few hundred people wait to find out. They are here this evening late in April for the concluding event of the Empathy Experiment — an experiment not in an empirical sense, but in teaching empathy.
Standing at a podium, the organ pipes above him reminiscent of a church hall, Board of Trustees member Ronald St. Pierre says the idea was for students to explore a social issue “not only by reading books and taking tests, but by immersing themselves in the realities of the situation.” The eight-week program required, for example, that students undergo a temporary eviction, be processed and stay a night at a homeless shelter, and go a night without eating. “It was a good chance for students to, frankly, get out of their comfort zone,” St. Pierre says. They were to move from sympathy to empathy.
The six participating students and their community partners are introduced in turn. Diana Crandall, a first-year psychology major in a smart black jacket and tie, talks about the children she worked with through the Children’s Hunger Alliance.
“I know that I can’t walk away from this and be the same person I was before.”
The Empathy Experiment included weekly group discussions, progressively challenging experiences called “miles,” and activities coordinated with community partners. The general focus was on the plight of the working poor. The program was not for credit yet still received 160 student applications, from which university president Denvy Bowman chose six students. It was, he says, a community service project but one that asks important questions about academics and values “th