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We need "Empathy Studies"

Course requirements in Quantitative Studies (QS) and Natural Sciences (NS) are known for dragging down humanity majors’ GPAs. Still, they can offer skills in data analysis and leveraging reason with evidence as opposed to anecdotal claims. These are abilities our liberal arts curriculum values. But just how effective are all current requirements in informing students on the values and knowledge that will serve them best in the future?

Criticisms of the efficacy of current liberal arts requirements aside, there is one particularly essential ability that is critical for success. And unfortunately, it currently is not explicitly represented in liberal arts curriculums.

I am referring to empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Without enough of it, social progress and leadership are ineffectual.

Automation, technology-based industrialization, climate change and subsequent conflicts are all rapidly, and continuously, shaping our increasingly unequal world. Tomorrow’s leaders are in today’s schools, wherein they face the experiences that will define their future life contributions.

The current liberal arts curriculum of universities nationwide includes course requirements in clusters such as Arts, Literatures, and Performance (ALP) and Science, Technology, and Society (STS)—both of which are the case for students in Trinity College. These Modes of Inquiry and Areas of Knowledge requirements are defined to prepare students for greater lives and careers beyond Duke University, and equip them with the tools, skills and knowledge they will need in order to succeed.

Perhaps a new requirement in Empathy Studies would further complicate the now-stagnant talks on Trinity College curriculum reform.  But the idea of such a requirement raises questions on how our university environment is cultivating and instilling empathy, a critical value we should all seek to enhance, even in non-liberal arts settings. 

The Pratt School of Engineering seeks to prepare students for success in engineering disciplines. Bridges they will construct and softwares they will develop should ultimately serve the purpose of bringing individuals together and improving quality of life. Empathy is critical for both. 

The few years during which students are able to live with and learn from peers in a resource-rich, higher-educational setting, are dense with opportunity. Priorities set by curriculums and resources presented play an indubitable role in shaping the lives of today’s young people who are afforded the opportunity to higher education. These future leaders in diverse fields, industries and disciplines must embrace empathy-building and empathetic living, amidst the volatility of our world.

On Duke University’s campus, several opportunities lend themselves to empathy-building. Service-learning classes and DukeEngage experiences present an opportunity for students to put themselves in others’ shoes, if they are intentional. Mere conversations with peers from far different backgrounds present a chance to understand a new perspective of the world.

Beyond Duke’s gothic walls, the implications of empathetic living are perhaps more pronounced.  “The fourth industrial revolution” is a term coined by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, to describe the “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”  Schwab recognizes that while this new revolution may “robotize” humanity (a dangerous underestimation), empathy can “lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny.”

What do I want to learn? How do I make the most of this education? These are the questions that both undergraduate and graduate students ask themselves every day in pursuit of their degrees. Often, students do not ask these questions on their first day of classes, however. Thankfully, higher learning institutions are strongly poised to both consider these questions and set frameworks for how their students address them.

In 2010, a study from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that “college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait,” according to researcher Sara Konrath. With our culture’s increasing use of social media and unparalleled sense of individualism, this trend is bound to continue. Therefore, interventions—from both inside and outside academic realms—must systematically and intentionally exhibit, address and foster empathy.

Research from the University of Florida recently found that negative behaviors such as rudeness are contagious, just like a cold. If the same is true for the opposite of rudeness, suggesting that empathy is contagious, perhaps college campuses are a prime environment in which students can proactively exhibit intentionality within our cultivation of empathy.

The ability to empathize is arguably the most important trait an individual can have. Even for campus discourse on the future of our housing model, empathy is critical. How can non-Greek-affiliated students engage with Greek-affiliated students on housing if they do not empathize with the nurturing communities some students find in selective spaces? Likewise, without empathy, how can students who have found the latter communities begin to engage with reforms to strengthen other forms of community on campus?

Without sufficient empathy, how can a leader hold his or her team accountable in a manner that empowers and fosters an environment conducive to honesty and vulnerability? In civil society and governance, how can we ever expect our leaders to act responsibly without sufficient empathy for the voiceless who are represented?

Empathy is a test of character, but it is also a test of strength, effectiveness and capacity for good. Global leaders need the emotional intelligence and ability to work in diverse teams in order address the challenges that lie ahead.

But these ideals are not standards for just the industry professionals and academics of the world—they are even more appropriately discussed in the context of young people who will need to live empathetically, just as great minds before us have done. 

An “ES-req” may be far from feasible; still, it is about time we begin institutionalizing empathy into our campus dialogues and infrastructure. From workshops to syllabi to lunch conversations and mandated meetings between students and advisors, there is always enough room to foster empathy. 

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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