Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Few Words for Empathy

Is it our responsibility to inspire students? I think so, if by inspire we mean encourage creative activity and engage in intellectual discussion. Is it our responsibility to teach social activism? I’m alarmed by this idea. It implies a particular kind of activism as an end goal. We aren’t elected leaders and our students are individuals with their own histories, interests, and agency. (Even their apathy may be a kind of agency, a way to adjust to or resist a particular educational dynamic. And we should recognize this.) I think we should be attempting to understand our students’ lifeworlds (in order to meet them in real dialogue) rather than rocking their worlds.

Last fall, I took a seminar on culture and education with several K-12 teachers. Each week I was amazed and humbled by their dedication to understanding their students’ diverse backgrounds and values. They worked to develop curriculums and evaluations that met students’ needs rather than imposing their own cultural standards on the classroom. This is not to say they didn’t demand and encourage growth. But there is a difference between opening minds (in a cultural of thoughtful dialogue) and mobilizing minds.

Certainly, I think we should expose students to new ideas and make the familiar strange. (I think we’d have more a open-minded student-population if we required everyone to take an anthropology class.) We can model respectful dialogue and thoughtful engagement. We can suggest ways for students to self-reflect and become aware of their own biases. We can speak persuasively and demonstrate the power of words and ideas for our students. We can remind them to evaluate the author(s) behind a text and consider an audience’s probable reaction to it. We can encourage them to ask questions and we can try to give them honest answers. But we do not have (and I would not want) the power to change their minds. Such change is internal and multi-faceted (and mysterious) and students’ minds are their own.

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