Empathy: Not So User Friendly

When I was a student with no idea of what I would do with the rest of my life, one question from my classmates always bothered me because it seemed like a limitation. Now, after several years of teaching teenagers, with only a small idea of what I will do with the rest of my life, this question still seems like a limitation. The question comes from students about courses they are taking: “When will I ever use this in my life?” I used to see this question as presumptuous: how does anyone know at 16, 17, 18, 29, 45, or 63 what they will “use” in the future?

As a teacher, I understand that the emotional roots of this question are often frustration and stress caused by the overscheduled lives of overachieving students. Or even the frustration and stress caused by the difficulty of learning anything new. However, while I may sometimes dismiss this attitude with a wry smile and shake of the head during the school year, the question still bothers me. I still find this question annoying; I still find it presumptuous. But I also sense in it something insidious if those emotional roots are left alone and allowed to thrive.

I object to the word use. Use implies manipulation or exertion of power over something else, that we are users of whatever knowledge we obtain. But to what end will we use what we learn? When I ask students this question, invariably the answer concerns the career they are preparing for, the house, car, big screen TV, smart phone, or vacation they’ve always wanted. These answers unveil an underlying assumption—that, in our society at least, we use knowledge to make money, to gain power over our environment. Knowledge is a commodity that engenders ever more commodities.

Read the clichés gracing inspirational posters and graduation cards: “Live life to the fullest,” “Seize the day,” “Follow your dreams,” “Take the road less traveled” (with great apologies to Frost for our collective misunderstanding of his poem).  The messages are of individuality; and while I advocate determination and excellence, the danger in these sayings is the notion that success is our highest purpose and that we should use whatever we can to reach it. If we assent to such a belief, everything we cannot use, then, is disposable: math, English, technology, fine arts, people. In a life where everything becomes something to use, even people become a commodity.

Many atrocities have occurred in history as a result of mankind using knowledge and manipulating it for selfish ends. Devastations in human relationships occur on the campus where I work every day: broken friendships, disrespect for another’s ideas, mockery of a teacher or a fellow student, exclusive cliques. Not always are these offenses a direct result of evil motives, but they are most often because of an inability or a refusal to understand.

So, to my students past, present, and future, my admonition is that you will understand rather than use. Find out someone’s story before forming an opinion, listen to the opposition instead of complaining, see someone’s potential in spite of their flaws, gain knowledge in order to gain wisdom. Gain wisdom to understand the world we live in and how we each fit into this world. I hope that the purpose of education is not merely to gain something you can use. Resist this limitation; there are already far too many users in the world.

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