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Education Reporter

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 After being withdrawn from Cobb and Henry schools, it was correctly taken off the approved state list for supplemental materials by state school Superintendant John Barge.

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A first-person narrative of the fictional young woman, Ahlima, serves to express the superiority of Islamic dress (it's modest), Islamic law (Shariah offers "protection" to women) and polygamous marriage (it protects women from divorce). It brings 11-year-olds to answer, "What do you think about what Ahlima told you?" and thereby demonstrates a disturbing set of assumptions.

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:

  • Writing assignments that ask for feelings and opinions. Teachers follow the lead of organizations like the National Council for Teachers of English and assign informal, impressionistic projects like blogging, journal-keeping and pictorial representations, instead of traditional papers.
  • Group work. Students are given emotional prompts, like a song, and are asked to discuss how various groups would "feel." Children and teenagers, already susceptible to peer pressure, are encouraged to conform to the prevailing attitude of the group — and the teacher.
  • Community service. Volunteering loses its meaning when it is done to fulfill requirements. A few hours spooning out soup offers much in boosting students' egos, but little in boosting academic knowledge.
  • The emphasis on everyday people, instead of leaders and heroes. When individuals aren't studied for historically significant accomplishments, the focus turns to feelings and personal sufferings.
  • Anti-bullying efforts. Sometimes with good intentions, legislators mandate emotionally invasive, and perhaps emotionally damaging, strategies to address bullying. These workshops force children to reveal fears and emotions, breaking down their sense of autonomy.

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.

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