At the age of twelve, my grandmother, who knew I was already an avid reader, gave me the novel Another Country by James Baldwin, which was quickly followed by “Sonny’s Blues” and The Fire Next Time. I realized later that she had gifted me these books because I had already expressed an interest in justice and civil rights, and Baldwin’s searing prose was relevant to the time and interest. I remember these texts because I hold them responsible for nurturing in me a nascent empathy for the struggles of Americans who were not like me. Baldwin’s whole premise is that Black and White Americans are tied together in a blood knot, and that the fate of the country is bound to this recognition and the white race’s understanding of its own destructive innocence. It is somewhat counter-intuitive that words in a book can prepare readers for the experience of empathy. Words are abstract, after all, while we think of direct experience as concrete. How can we walk in “another man’s shoes” when we aren’t actually walking?
Years later, I taught Grapes of Wrath to a relatively privileged 10th grade class at an independent school. It is safe to say that in this 1990s suburban New Jersey school there were few descendants of the migrant sharecroppers who populated Steinbeck’s novel. I taught the novel well, because Steinbeck’s passion and empathy for his subjects awoke in me the same feeling of solidarity that Baldwin’s words had, and I was able to transmit, in a carefully calibrated way, that feeling to my students. Again, a narrative about a subculture of white farmers as remote from the experience of east coast suburban kids as one could imagine. Like other novels that express a distinct political viewpoint, , are too long to fit into Common Core requirements, social media attention spans, or might give offense, novels like Grapes of Wrath have disappeared from many reading lists.
Empathy is challenging to teach. Is it taught or naturally acquired? Is it an emotion or a skill? Empathy is too risky to be mere sentiment, and too transcendent to qualify as mere skill. In my early days as a teacher I was fond of differentiating between pity, sympathy, and empathy, a continuum that has some use in studying literature but now feels trite if the intent is to get students to enter as fully as possible into the experience of an other.
As always, pedagogical choices make a difference in how we manage this leap. If we treat books in school like knowledge to be consumed, or a precious item that if held the wrong way can be shattered; or avoid books and discussions altogether unless we can sanitize issues too volatile in order to keep classrooms emotionally “safe,” then we have little chance. How do we share reading as a malleable experience which can be a catalyst for both action and reflection? It’s also important to qualify the argument: we don’t choose all texts to cultivate empathy or social justice, nor should we, unless the curriculum is explicitly built around these themes; we choose books for many reasons, and sometimes the stirrings of empathy are an unpredictable side-effect.
Because we are in a time when empathy is outnumbered by louder and more seductive values, now is exactly the time to reinforce this quieter skill in our curriculum. Hardening ideology, the proclivity of social media to narrow rather than expand outreach (it is hard to empathize if most free moments are spent with your head locked to a screen), the rapid-fire pace at which we move—none of these factors offer fertile ground for developing empathy. Yet educators denote this “soft skill” as one of the critical “21st century skills” (as if such skills were inapplicable in other centuries) and lump it together with critical thinking, collaboration, and the like. Yet I think it is the skill most resistant to teaching in the current structure of our schools. Maybe empathy is a bit like WC Williams hopeful statement about poetry—that “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”