When my daughter started remote kindergarten last month, the schedule sent to parents included more than reading, math, art and other traditional subjects. She’ll also have sessions devoted to “social and emotional learning.” Themes range from listening skills and reading nonverbal cues to how to spot and defuse bullying.
As millions of students start the school year at home, staring at glowing tablets, families worry that they will miss out on the intangible lessons in mutual understanding that come with spending hours a day with kids and adults outside their own household. We want children to grasp perspectives of people different from themselves. Yet in recent years, empathy — whether we can achieve it; whether it does the good we think — has become a vexed topic.
While teachers attempt to teach empathy through screens, the national context has become complicated in the months since the police killing of George Floyd. “Because our white leaders lack compassion and empathy, Black people continue to die,” wrote a columnist in The Chicago Sun-Times. When Joe Biden posted a video declaring that “the pain is too intense for one community to bear alone,” journalists called the message an effort to “project empathy” — while activists said empathy was not enough.
Image credit: Geoff McFetridge