The following is the text of my Opening Convocation speech to the Middle and Upper School community on Tuesday, September 4, 2018.
Welcome to the 2018-2019 School year. I am delighted to be welcoming back such a wonderful group of students and to have so many new students join our School.
In June the administrative team deliberated about our role as educational leaders. Our discussion focused on what is important for you as learners in the year 2018. There were several creative ideas and insights and we had lengthy discussions about what our school community would benefit from as we learn together. Our collective wisdom, problem-solving, and experience directed us to our theme for the year, Empathy and Ethical Thinking.
This theme pertains to the work of all of us. The teachers will be thinking about ways to inspire each of you to show empathy and to understand what it means to be of good character; the administrators will plan their work with deliberate attention to this theme, so our community is empowered to uphold our Core Values; and as students you will be encouraged to dedicate yourselves to think about the impact you have on others both here and in the greater Boston Community, our nation, and the world.
As I reflected on this theme over the summer, I found that much of what I read, both in fiction and non-fiction, held elements of the topic of empathy and ethical thinking within the pages of each work. The faculty summer reading book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba, posed questions and offered answers to the topic of helping others to be empathic in their response to those around them. The short but powerful book How to Think by Alan Jacobs challenged me to consider a more philosophical and deliberate approach to the process of thinking. The novels I read helped me see how protagonists and antagonists alike were faced with social decisions about a person or group of people as they learned to interact with others in their lives. I was even able to see myself within some of those fictional characters. I’d like to take you through a short journey of where my summer-long reflection on our theme for the year took me.
As we expand and mature our experience in life to extend beyond the emotions of sympathy and pity, we are challenged with the complex task of developing empathy, which we know to be a learned skill. We see this idea expressed throughout literature. For example, Jane Austin’s novel Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions as she worked through the thematic idea that we must not be quick to judge others and to show empathy to those around us. In Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, she writes “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Lee’s novel challenged readers to question injustice and demand equity. In making her point she used the proverb that dates back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans, who warned: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” Countless times this summer, I was reminded that if we are to live a responsible life where conflict can be resolved peacefully while upholding dignity for all people as a priority, we need to spend time understanding the life others live.
At Brimmer, we “walk a mile in others’ shoes” throughout the year. Over the years, we have made many efforts to build understanding and have empathy for others. This is important work and should be celebrated for its commitment and courage and taking the perspective of others a few times a year is a great beginning. However, recent research out of Harvard University on the topic of social perspective taking (SPT) suggests that developing empathy requires more from us if we are to resolve conflicts effectively and live in a peaceful society. To help others or to be empathic towards the conditions others face is hard work, requires deep thinking, and needs sustained commitment. We must commit ourselves to understanding the challenges people face and be deliberate in our commitment before and after direct social experiences.
According to Harvard’s research team on the study of social perspective taking, “Information about the other party fosters more positive relationships and make greater concessions than participants who did not receive information about the other party. Furthermore, those who experientially learned about the other party’s perspective felt more positive about their relationships and made greater concessions during negotiation than those who were simply provided information about the other party’s perspective.” (Many Ways to Walk a Mile in Another’s Moccasins: Type of Social Perspective Taking and its effect on Negotiation Outcomes). According to the study, learning about others requires a fair degree of listening, asking questions, and seeing reactions. Interestingly, this can be done effectively through simulation and not just in a face-to-face environment. In fact, it can be done with just a book in our hands if we allow our imagination to take us there. This means for those who cannot travel to understand other cultures and differences, they can be just as effective as developing empathy as those who can travel. If we are able to watch and listen to simulations and be guided through a thoughtful discussion, learning and understanding takes place. If we commit to reading the stories others tell us in novels and through narratives, and we try to imagine and transcend into their experience through conversation and instruction, we can learn to be empathic. (Young, Imaging Minds.)
Learning how to develop empathy is a lifelong journey. It involves learning how to think and is part of our collective educational journey. New ways to do this always present themselves. With the technological advances now made available to all of us, it is possible to have meaningful experiences without actually being present. Technology also allows information to be delivered fast and almost immediately; it means we can experience what others do by watching and being part of an experience even if it is a simulation. In turn, the advancements of technology also require more of us. We must think more critically about what we read, what we hear, and what we see. In the book How We Think, author Alan Jacobs mindfully points out that we are now in a time when not all public statements heard in such a vastly public way were meant to be so. Not all images shared were thoughtfully considered before being made public. Having access to information, especially private information, means we need to be careful and discern if we should share it even when it is possible to do so. Testing out truth and knowing when to share information requires both the work of our character and the work of our intellect. In turn, responding to what we feel and what we do relies both on our character and on our intellect.
Committing to a life of thinking often means adapting our own thinking. Jacobs asserts that we must embrace the habits of past philosophers who practiced the methods of disciplined discourse and who “care more about working toward the truth than about one’s own social position” (Jacob. p. 150). We seem to be in a time when we emphasize our differences and watch people celebrate ideas freely that are often hurtful and polarizing just to gain a social position. I hope this year, we will care more about working toward the truth, and in the words of Immanuel Kant “Sapere aude! – Dare to think, dare to be wise.”