Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stefania Has Some Questions about Empathy

Many of our students have posted questions on their class blog for their "Wikified Research Paper" regarding our explorations of A Whole New Mind. Stefania just posted one as a VoiceThread, so feel free to comment on the blog post or leave a comment on the VoiceThread (embedded below for your convenience, but of course the comments exist on the Voicethread on both posts).


  1. Mr. Gates offers a good suggestion. That phrase, "Imagine that you..." that asks you to put yourself in someone else's shoes is a powerful one.
    As a language arts instructor, I often challenge my students to put themselves in the shoes of a character and imagine their sentiments. The same could be done with a figure in history, a scientist, or a mathmatician. This simple, but powerful phrase is, I believe, a great way to teach empathy.

  2. Stefania,

    One of the most powerful books I’ve read about empathy and its failure is Hannah Arendt’s "Eichmann in Jerusalem." The book changed my life; I think about it frequently and it has affected the way I behave. Very simply, it taught me that as individuals we must say no to evil. If one person with empathy resists evil, there is a ripple-effect. Soon, other people follow that good person’s leadership.

    The book studies Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi leader on trial for his role in the attempted genocide of Jews during Hitler’s rampage through Europe. Arendt explores the break-down in empathy that led Eichmann and the other Nazis to implement the “final solution,” the mass extermination of Jews in the death camps. It also explores how and why certain nations (such as Denmark) resisted Nazi orders to round up Jews living in their midst.

    Here are some brief passages from the book, as quoted and explained in Wikkipedia:

    Arendt insisted that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism, and that this choice has political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless:

    “[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

    Arendt mentions, as a case in point, Denmark:

    “One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.”

    The Wikkipedia article doesn’t do the book justice, however, because it focuses on Arendt’s description of Eichmann instead of on her stories about the various nations who either resisted or capitulated to the Nazis. I recommend that you read the entire book. It’s very engaging and will give you much to think about regarding empathy—I promise!