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Professional Opinion

Higher ed must reverse the empathy deficit

Colleges and universities must teach responsibilities of citizenship—democracy depends on it
University Business, April 2017
Elizabeth Davis is higher ed president of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.
Elizabeth Davis is higher ed president of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

The rancorous 2016 election and this year’s transition to a new presidential administration makes one thing clear: We are suffering from a national shortage of empathy.

The difficulty we seem to have in taking the perspective of another—and then having a thoughtful and respectful dialogue about conflicting views—is fracturing our democracy in ways that are particularly troubling.

If we use our students as a barometer, we can document the trend. Self-reported concern for the welfare of others has been decreasing since the early 1990s, and the decline is accelerating, according to Sara Konrath, an Indiana University professor who studied the responses of 13,000 college students.

Konrath also reported that levels of compassion and empathy among college students are now at their lowest level in 30 years. These findings are consistent with recent declines in empathy among first-year college students responding to UCLA’s annual freshman survey.

Harder, not easier

In a 2006 commencement speech at Northwestern University, President Barack Obama spoke of a national “empathy deficit.” He told graduates that after they leave college, “cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’s no community-service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care.

You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle.”

We don’t know definitively why the empathy deficit is growing, but Konrath suggests some reasons. A culture focused on financial rewards is one possible factor. Another, more recent trend is the rise in digital communications and social media.

The more we interact in virtual or anonymous forums, the less time we spend face-to-face, connecting and empathizing with the real human being on the other end.

That raises two questions: Why should we care about this? And what do we do about it?

Improving quality of life

Higher education—and especially those institutions focused on the liberal arts and sciences—has a significant responsibility to address this empathy gap.

If we graduate students who lack awareness and concern for the well-being of others, universities will produce alumni who will not be as successful in their careers as they ought to be. Working in teams and negotiating solutions to complex problems requires being able to understand the views of others.

Equally important, without empathy, our graduates will not be able to improve the quality of life in their communities: economically, socially and educationally. And they will not be able to participate fully in informed public dialogue and public service, which requires being able to navigate among competing perspectives and realities.

Relevance and reflection

This kind of empathy, broadly defined, can be taught. The core of a liberal arts and sciences education is exposure to the diversity of human thought and experience. Students learn from studying history, other cultures, and human ideas and expression in a wide range of disciplines.

Their assumptions should be challenged, so they can better understand and appreciate those who are different from themselves.

These are the challenges we are currently addressing at Furman University. How do we offer an education that tackles real-world community needs and problems, and also helps students unpack their experiences and come away with a deeper self-awareness?

Is it possible to guarantee every student these relevant, out-of-class experiences, where reflection is woven throughout their fellowships, coursework, volunteer work and research? We believe so, and we’re already working toward those goals.

When we demonstrate greater self-awareness, increased empathy and appreciation for the perspectives of others, we are more likely to be engaged in our communities and in public service. Our democratic society desperately needs universities to fulfill this role, and we must step up to the challenge.


Elizabeth Davis is president of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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