Can Empathy be Taught?

In this provocative essay, Greta Hofmann Nemiroff discusses how she has managed to create teaching environments conducive to the experience and expression of empathy, while expressing doubts, rooted in her experiences, that have led her to question whether empathy really can be taught.


Can empathy be taught? In reaction to our experience of an armed attack on our community in 2006, Dawson College has undertaken as an institution to strongly support the ideas and practices of non-violent education and is now considering the creation of a peace institute. “Empathy” is a word broadly used in peace and non-violence discourse.  In this article, I will examine the concept of empathy, address various issues related to its place in college teaching and learning, and I will describe pedagogical practices and locations which might lead towards a more empathic environment. To this end, I will draw primarily upon my experience as a teacher in Dawson’s New School where, over the years, I have had the privilege of seeing numerous examples of empathic expression among the students:  empathy towards one another, towards teachers, and towards strangers suffering locally and in faraway places. In our Learning Bands (groups whose purpose is to address the cognitive, affective and social needs of our students), moments of empathic understanding and communication happen which can be profoundly moving; witnessing such expression on the part of young people has been a deeply affirming experience for me as an educator. However, recollecting and analyzing those shared moments of empathic understanding, I have unhappily drawn the conclusion that empathy in itself cannot be ” taught” although environments conducive to the experience and expression of empathy can be created.  The contrary is also true; there are some learning environments which create disincentives for feeling or expressing empathy.

The word “empathy” derives from the Greek empátheia oraffection.”  Its meaning became amplified by German philosophers in the late 19th century and early 20th century field of aesthetics, where it referred to the interaction between the observer and the object observed. [i]  In the 1950’s, it became further amplified to mean the capacity to “vicariously experience the perception, emotions, feelings and thoughts of another person,”and to understand the other’s desires, ideas and actions, entering psychological vocabulary through writings in Humanistic Psychology, notably by the American psychologist, Carl Rogers. [ii] Although it usually refers to a more intense vicarious experience,“empathy” includes meaning attributed to the word “sympathy” which as early as 1662 was been defined as “the quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others.”[iii]

Later on, Rogers applied Humanistic Psychology to education, formulating many of the ideas and practices of Humanistic Education practised at the New School since 1973. Rogers articulated a need for “person-centered” education where a key element is the quality of the personal relationship between facilitators [teachers] and learners.” [iv] Empathic understanding is identified as a necessary quality: the teacher/facilitator must have “…the ability to understand the student’s reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seems to the student.” Rogers questioned whether most teachers have the courage, creativity, tolerance, and humanity to accept such a responsibility.[v]   His methodology encourages free and spontaneous communication between all members of a learning group. As this process develops, people drop their facades and reveal deeper and previously hidden aspects of themselves. By examining these aspects of themselves, participants can restore contact with experiences “unmediated by the introjections of others [vi]  and address and sometimes change the values which underlie their behaviours and beliefs. My experience and observations as an educator working within the framework of Humanistic Education, much of which focuses on creating an empathic environment, raises numerous questions: can one actively and successfully “teach” empathy in the context in which we work as college teachers?  Is empathy teachable through citing examples of empathy or the horrors of our world?  Is empathy learnable mimetically through example? Here much has been written to expose the hypocrisy of many parents, teachers and members of the clergy who have attempted to “teach” empathy by example or by exempla. Is the capacity for empathy innate as some neurobiologists have argued?  Are only some of us born with the capacity for empathy?  The latter question arises especially when we see siblings who have immensely varying capacities for empathy.  Do we live in a context that inspires empathy?  One of the ironies attendant upon the notion of “teaching empathy” is that empathy is not empathy if there is any element of coercion in the process of developing it.  Hence, evaluating a student for showing empathy indicates a misunderstanding or a perversion of the concept.

A focus on empathy, at best, means swimming against powerful social and global currents. Our public discourse does not favour empathic expression; for example, the words “collateral damage” are used to describe those thousands of civilians who die every day as the result of aggressive military and paramilitary attacks. Institutional and governmental indifference to the effects of their actions is rife. It has become clear that banks, respected and influential  institutions to which we entrust our money, have not only  caused vast economic collapse  for the many people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, but the bankers responsible for this situation have been rewarded with enormous annual bonuses .  The Canadian government is busily dismantling systematic environmental research and has dangerously softened environmental laws in the interests of large corporations not known for their devotion to empathy. Montrealers are treated to accounts of impressively grandiose feats of theft perpetrated  at our expense by public servants and “respectable”  engineering firms. Every day, as we leave the Dawson tunnel for the metro, we are intercepted by beggars, often aboriginal people whose land and culture have been stolen and destroyed by our forbearers; sometimes we witness the desperation of mentally ill people who also frequent the station.  Little empathy is shown to them by the majority of people who look the other way as we pass by.

It might be argued that many of our students do not engage directly in the public sphere in which they live and breathe.  On the whole, they do not watch or listen to the news or read newspapers.  They often say with some complacency: “We live in our bubbles.” At Dawson students have created  larger “bubbles” of social segregation by naming public spaces such as cafeterias “ the Jew,” ”the Italian” and the ”Black” cafeterias.  Their life in these bubbles is mediated by numerous electronic devices, either to access the  music they like or to message people they know.  Their use of these devices also changes at an accelerated rate.  Where five years ago they would be seen conversing on their cell phones, now for the most part, they send and receive short text messages.  Facebook is also a very important factor in their lives; yet while many may boast about how many “friends” they have on Facebook, they usually do not know and will never know most of them. Emotions are often indicated simply by a happy face or a frown image, or in Facebook by “like.”  These media are not susceptible to the complex exploration or nuanced expression of their own and others’ emotions, much less to fostering empathy.  Many of our students have managed to build rather resistant “bubbles” in which to negotiate their way through the vicissitudes of the public sphere…until further notice.

One might think that surely if we inform students about the greater context in which they live… the torture and death of ordinary people at the mercy of various militias in the world,  the suffering of co-citizens avoided in the Metro station,  …surely they will discover within themselves the capacity for feeling empathy for those people.  My experience has been that information about “others”…and especially about others far away and others whom they can “other,” …does not create either interest or empathy, but it can create resistance to feeling empathy.

A few weeks ago in a “regular” Dawson class, [vii] we discussed the students’ aspirations for their adult lives. It was noteworthy that 18/21 students thought the world would stay the way it is:  they would occupy well-paying corporate jobs almost immediately upon graduation from university, they would travel extensively, and they would own both country and city houses, When I raised the question of the destruction of the natural environment they hoped to enjoy in their future country homes, many of the students became quite defensive.  They would continue to live in their “bubbles,” they assured me.  Leo, a usually mild young man, suddenly stood up and exploded: “I don’t give a damn about anyone else in the world!” Leo is a cheerful friendly young man who is always surrounded by classmates whom he appears to like.  Later on, when I said to him: “Leo, I don’t believe you don’t give a damn.  You seem to be a very good friend to numerous people,” he replied: “Well those are my friends.  I meant that I don’t give a damn about anyone else.”

It was not possible to “teach” empathy in that situation.  The “information” about environmental destruction in the world, or about the increasingly worrisome use of drones or nuclear proliferation, leaves the students quite cold. As Leo demonstrated to me, in order to be touched, whatever happens has to be very close to family and friends, within the boundaries inscribed by the bubble. The rest of the people in the world, strangers, are seen as “the Other.”

In the New School we are committed to educating the “whole person,” by addressing the emotions, the intellect and the social aspects of each student’s life.  Influenced from the outset by Roger’s educational theories, we attempt to provide a safe environment where people’s multiple values are shared, examined and respected, where honest discourse is encouraged, and where students have significant power over what and how they learn.  Students and teachers are perceived as facilitators of one another’s learning. Our learning bands require a layered approach: they must address what is going on in the students’ current lives; there are skills and knowledge to be learned; in order to be an effective site of learning, each  Learning Band must sculpt itself in to a group where everyone’s presence is accepted as equally important and, while personal beliefs and values may be debated, judgement is not passed on individuals.  While all members of a Learning Band, including the teacher, are not obliged to become friends, they are expected to show sensitivity, concern and respect for one another. As Rogers would say, “To be with another in this way means that for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another’s world without prejudice.  In some sense this means you lay aside yourself and this can only be done by a person who is secure enough [to] not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other , and (to] comfortably return to his own world when he wishes. ” [viii]

It is not simple to create an educational environment where the Rogerian notion of empathy can flourish. At the New School I begin creating an empathic environment by choosing themes for my courses which I think respond to the students’ current Zeitgeist. What do they care about?  What’s happening in their lives? What subject matter will motivate them into an extensive engagement with themselves, the other students, and the tasks they must perform?

To this end I choose themes that are close to their lives. The Learning Bands that address such themes have on the whole been successful in meeting what I consider to be the necessary requirements of an empathic environment: self expression and exploration, honest response that directly addresses people’s feelings, immediate feedback on students’ work, updating ones co-participants on ones life, remembering the lives and issues of other members, and a sense of closure at the end of term.

To illustrate the workings of the Learning Bands, I will use quotations mainly from the students’ evaluations of their experiences in the Anger Learning Groups; student evaluations are handed in after marks have been reported. I chose to form a Learning Band on anger, because it seemed to me that many of the students are angry and resentful about much in their lives.  They are not always aware of it, however, as one student wrote in his evaluation of the course:

The other students in class shocked me. I knew that people were angry and I knew that anger was something prominent that exists in our society forward and backward, but I did not realize that anger was such an important thing at this time of our lives. A lot of the members were very open and direct explaining their anger issues and it was encouraging to see. (Anger Group)


We dedicate the first part of the term to personal anger, identifying what makes people angry and how they address their anger. The students maintain anger journals, read,  and have weekly written assignments on readings by Aristotle, Shakespeare, among others, and by reading “The Dance of Anger,” a book  by the psychologist, Harriet Lerner.  In the process of discussing the readings, students learned a great deal from one another:

I think that one of the biggest things I came to realize was how interesting and complex human lives are.  Through the group discussions I came to realize how normal and similar my anger is.  I also loved the enthusiasm, humour and motivation of my peers. We were always able to discuss interesting topics, and my peers were eager to suggest new ideas and state their opinions. I also enjoyed getting to know my peers on more of a one- to- one level. This allowed each of us to connect more to the topic and be open to sharing and discussing our anger, our analysis and our hectic lives. (Anger Group)


The second half of the term is devoted to looking at examples of collective anger.  Here we focus on the Black and Women’s Movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s onward in both the US and Canada. 

The readings on collective anger were actually inspiring for me in a way. It showed me that change can be made possible by the powerless, if there are enough people who feel the same sentiments.  It made me realize that while anger can be detrimental to human society, it could also be a powerful, driving force behind some of the most positive, society-changing movements of our time. (Anger Group)


In order to experience what a collective political process involves, students eventually have to come up with issues that make them angry at Dawson and formulate group projects for change within the college. Projects have included an action research on costs in the cafeteria, a mural exploring Dawson’s services to students, and a campaign to retain the full time services of a nurse in the college.  These projects are formulated and run exclusively by the students. The teacher acts as a resource, but it is important for the students to explore and discover what can be done to effect change in this large and complex institution. Through the process of discussing their personal lives and of working together on a collective project, and of sharing their values, feelings and experiences, students often come together in moments of solidarity and shared empathy.

I was surprised by the complicity we were able to establish; people open to each other pretty easily.  The group pushed me to talk more and get over my shyness. (Anger Group)


What I liked best about this Learning Band was the fact that it was an extremely close and understanding group of people, and that we were all comfortable trusting each other with our issues and private problems. It taught me that it is always worthwhile to look at a place or at someone with attentive yes and an open heart, ready to take in what it or they can teach you. (Anger Group)


Other Learning Group themes which have been very successful in encouraging students to attend to others in the group have been on friendship, identity, culture shock, personal and literary narratives, and  speaking up and public speaking.  In all of these learning groups, members must address diverse layers of learning: skills in reading/critical thinking and writing; learning to function effectively in groups, and also to explore their lives with other young people who usually arrive knowing no one in the group. At the outset, they might arrive with prejudices that are not conducive to the creation of an empathic environment:

As bad as it may sound, I’ve learned not to make prejudiced opinions on who I feel I may or may not get along with.  Coming into this group I felt as though I wouldn’t get along with the [other] girls as it is a small group and we all “appear” differently.  I ‘m happy to admit that I was very wrong…. (Identity Group)

While the “academic” aspects of the group work are important, on the whole it is the non-judgemental environment that encourages students to reach into themselves and reach out to one another:

As a group we shared something magical, something I’ve always loved. There was a perfect balance of learning from each other, the texts, and the teacher. I think it’s the most productive way to learn and this experience has brought me to want more. The aspect I liked most about the group was the diversity and then the harmonious relationships we all had; there was so much constructive energy, it was amazing. (Culture Shock Group)

Because it is known that the group will be discussing the readings, students are reluctant to turn up without having done the weekly assignment, which always has a written element.  While at the beginning of a first Learning Group in the New School, students might believe that their participation doesn’t matter, they are often disabused of this sentiment through their participation:

I learned a lot about self-respect: a very sensitive value when it comes to me. For a few of the beginning classes of the semester, we talked about ourselves in general where we all found out a little bit about each other. During this time, I realized that I did not have much self-respect. I always thought that I didn’t care about much, but that wasn’t it. I just had [such] trouble focusing on myself and actually caring for myself that I didn’t know how to care about other people or things. (Identity Group)

Often the Learning Band experience of empathy can be translated into empathic behaviour outside of the Learning Groups:

I think everyone would agree that J. was always the comic relief guy. He always made us laugh and I love him for that. But he is also an extremely caring person. When I came into the New School quite upset one day, he came to me right away and held my hand and explained to me that things would get better. I’m so touched he did that, he made me feel so much better.   (Great Out There Band)


From time to time I have developed courses that have had as their “hidden curriculum” the desire to sensitize students to and evoke empathy for the many instances of suffering in our world. I must say that these have been the least effective ways of evoking empathy or empathic behaviour from the students. In “‘Othering’ others and being the ‘Other’”, students were prepared to discuss their own experiences of being “othered” by their peers and by teachers and other adults.  They showed empathy with one another’s experiences, some of which were very sad to hear. However, it soon became apparent when we addressed the current conditions of “othering” that motivate distant militias to murder and torture, they closed down. The students dutifully read the assigned works, watched the assigned films, wrote their research papers, but they showed little affect regarding the horrors brought to their attention. There were similar responses in a Learning Group entitled “Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?” In both cases the “factual evidence” of the violence inflicted on the most vulnerable by those with power and armaments  overwhelmed the students and filled them with feelings of apathy and disempowerment. They were reluctant to “get into” discussing, much less revealing, their feelings towards these situations. Their responses were to retreat as far as they could into their own personal bubbles. While they could agree rationally that the Rwanda massacres, for instance, were brutal and tragic, they could not express empathy for people who had been violated, tortured and murdered.  In hindsight I realize that a “hidden curriculum” can be coercive, and it can be offensive to the inherent dignity of our students to be expected to produce certain feelings upon request.

Despite the ever increasing attention paid to computer- assisted education at Dawson, the theme of “educating the whole person” often appears in our official rhetoric, and it is to be found in the college’s mission statement. Our experience at the New School indicates that in order to educate the “whole person,” you must commit yourself to knowing that person.  Is this possible?

In our English and Humanities classes, taken by all students, is our current “delivery” to groups of over 40 students conducive to creating an environment where students and teachers would want to risk the vulnerability of publically experiencing and expressing empathy?  Regular pre-university students interface with approximately 600 other students per year, most of whose names or voices they will never know. Teachers’ student loads often exceed 300 students per year.  If teaching empathy as a subject were to be exchanged for a more experiential model, can mass education provide an appropriate environment for experiencing and sharing empathy?  I wish I knew the “right” answer to these questions. However, it is clear to me that if we at Dawson want to create a “culture of empathy,” we will have to find a way of reaching and validating the varied capacities for empathy in our students and ourselves.  As an institution, we have already committed ourselves to non-violence and peace; we must now draw on our combined wisdom, experience and institutional will to create an environment conducive to exploring that most  debatable and ephemeral  of human possibilities : empathy.

Greta Hofmann Nemiroff

Humanities/English, Dawson College

[i]See the writings of Theodor Lipps, Dilthey and Husserl, or the entry under “Einfuehlung” in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosopy. Cambridge University Press, 1999.


[ii]Carl Rogers (1975) “Empathic: An unappreciated way of being.” Counseling Psychologist, 5, p.8.


[iii]The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  Oxford: England, 1959.


[iv]Carl  Rogers, Freedom to Learn for the 80’s. Columbus, OH: Charles E, Merrill, 1969. Pp.120-121.


[v]Ibid. pp.137-142.


[vi]Ibid, pp. 160-165.


[viii]Carl Rogers (1975) “Empathic: An unappreciated way of being.” Counseling Psychologist, 5, p.6.


, , ,

One Response to Can Empathy be Taught?

  1. catherine April 9, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    Very provocative reading. I was especially interested in the comments from the students. Working in an “empathetic” milieu, I am always surprised at how much empathy plays a role with our client population.
    There are many times when showing empathy, not sympathy, can help level an escalating situation.
    The question of “can empathy be taught” has always interested me and after reading this piece, I will continue to wonder.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes