Opinion | The Trouble With Empathy

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“We have to ask: Is this the kind of reading we want kids to do? It makes kids really dislike reading. That doesn’t mean we don’t read critically, but we should be using some of that critical and interpretive firepower on political speeches, political tweets, things that demand attention to the way people are using language because they have immediate impact on us as citizens of the world. We should use fiction for empathy, aesthetic pleasure, examining ethical dilemmas and just the experience of escaping.”

Ms. Levine taught high school English on the South Side of Chicago before Stanford. She said that despite the life of privilege she sees around her now, “the danger we’re exposing students to in English classrooms is just as bad for kids in Palo Alto as for kids in Chicago with many fewer resources. We’re teaching them that literature is not for them, because they aren’t a part of what they read. I don’t mean because they feel, ‘I don’t see Black and brown faces in my literature,’ but ‘I’m supposed to write an argument about a motif,’ and not do what kids do outside of the classroom: read and enjoy the experience.”

Emerson Holloway, an English major at Oberlin College in Ohio, read a lot on her own to make up for the fact that in high school, she didn’t always have “the opportunity to connect and empathize with characters,” she told me.

At Oberlin, she helps facilitate a student group called Barefoot Dialogues, which invites students to discuss a text or work of art over a home-cooked meal in order to “engage in trust and vulnerability to make connections across differences,” she said.

She acknowledged that in academia, empathy across identity lines has become controversial, and it’s crucial to “know your own boundaries,” she said. “You can ask, ‘What’s the point if we’re all so different? I’ll never be able to truly understand,’ and that’s true to an extent.”

Yet the effort to understand feels more important now than ever, she said. When Covid-19 hit in March, Barefoot Dialogues switched to Zoom meetings; its leaders are hoping for a hybrid of in-person and remote conversation this fall.

The college students I interviewed for this story stressed the role of empathy in firing up their curiosity, critical thinking and self-interrogation. “People often dismiss emotion as a weakness,” Andie Horowitz, a political science major at the University of Michigan, told me. “But a certain level of emotion makes you interested in something, wanting to find the truth.”

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