|NUMBER 313||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||FEBRUARY 2012|
|Schools Need Less Emphasis on Empathy|
By Mary Grabar
Originally published at ajc.com on October 10, 2011 and reprinted with permission.
The recent controversy over a lesson on Islam used in a Cobb middle school as supplemental material for a unit on the Middle East illustrates a problem that goes beyond what Pamela Geller calls the "Islamization" of America. After being withdrawn from Cobb and Henry schools, it was correctly taken off the approved state list for supplemental materials by state school Superintendant John Barge.
Consider what an "official" of the curriculum company told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter: "It's important for kids to have some empathy for other people in the world."
Really? When did schools get into the empathy business?
But this official's admission illustrates how prevalent this belief is among educators. Educators have swung sharply from what most citizens believe schools should be doing, and that is imparting knowledge objectively and teaching students how to present written and oral arguments using logic and evidence.
Instead, students are asked to adopt attitudes and present opinions on adult issues. Most students recognize and resist overt proselytizing. They find it more difficult when they are asked to empathize with individual characters, like "Ahlima." But there are other means by which educators exploit students emotionally:
Education schools train teachers in such strategies by de-emphasizing knowledge and asking education majors to study identity politics and learning styles, and to fulfill course requirements by journaling and thinking "deeply."
As I learned at a college teaching workshop, millennials (born between the mid-'70s and mid-'90s) don't respect authority, get bored easily and demand justification and reward for every task. Not surprisingly, employers are finding graduates ignorant about history and civics, with poor work habits and horrible communication skills.
A 2009 York College study, "Professionalism in the Workplace," found that employers who felt that professionalism had decreased among new graduates most often attributed it to a "sense of entitlement."
To pick up the slack of the classroom, we need tutors, graduation coaches and work readiness programs. Some of the decline is due to circumstances beyond educators' control, like family dysfunction. But when schools emphasize feelings over knowledge and give students a false sense of accomplishment, they're not helping.
Real knowledge and a strong work ethic come from such things as memorization, rewards for correct answers, intellectually challenging reading, and standard-based math and writing, not from "brainstorming" in groups, or getting praise for unsupported opinions, impressionistic scribbling in journals or token acts of do-good-ism. The "Ahlima" lesson should prompt school officials and parents to investigate how schools have lost sight of their mission.
Mary Grabar holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches at a university in Atlanta. She writes frequently on education, culture, and politics, and is a published fiction writer and poet.