Liberal Education

The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education

I often use case studies in my undergraduate classes. Perhaps because I briefly wrote case studies during a short stint at Harvard Business School before going back to graduate school, or perhaps because I used to work in multicultural training in student affairs, I find that students tend to do some of their best thinking when presented with a real-life scenario. Case studies give students an opportunity to apply a theoretical construct to an actual situation, and to step into the shoes of another human being.

My field is multicultural education, and while I know there are probably web-based case studies I could assign for class, I tend to write my own. They are usually short, accessible, and designed to stimulate discussion, not yes-or-no answers.

Earlier this semester, I wrote a new case study called "Toys for Haiti." In my multicultural education class, we spend one week focusing on issues of national identity and ethnocentrism. Horace Miner's classic "Body Rituals of the Nacirema" provides a beginning opportunity for my students to reflect on how others see us, and how we have historically constructed other people and cultures. "Toys for Haiti" is designed to extend this reflection into a meaningful, relevant, applied situation.

Based largely on my own experiences in and with Haiti, "Toys for Haiti" creates the following scenario: You are a teacher at a high school, and are working with a group of students who want to do something to help Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. Because the television news has focused so much attention on orphanages in Haiti, your group decides on a toy drive to help the children experience at least a little fun and joy through toys. Your group collects lots of toys, including stuffed animals, toys with lots of batteries, toys with hundreds of pieces, and learn-to-read books. About a year passes, and one of your teachers, who is in Haiti doing relief work, visits the orphanage. People are polite, but eventually someone whispers to her that the toys were not exactly what they needed, and most are gone.

As one of my graduate teaching assistants reflected in our weekly meeting, my students struggled to make sense of what had gone wrong. So far, it was just as I had expected. I did not think that my students would know immediately that stuffed animals are germ magnets and impossible to keep clean in an orphanage environment, that toys with batteries are run down and discarded within days in an orphanage as there are no new batteries to be had, that toys with hundreds of pieces are dangerous with babies and toddlers around and would not be distributed, and that English-language books are not useful in a country where people speak Creole or French.

But I also knew that this particular teaching assistant had been to Haiti, understood the challenges, and could help the students see the problems—and the ethnocentrism—in assuming that their perspectives were always correct. She was capable of working with students to help them realize that it is important to listen to the voices and experiences of others. With some guidance, I assumed my students were capable of empathy.

But I was wrong. As my graduate assistant related, many of the students resisted. Instead of even gently beginning to dislodge their beliefs, they clung to them even more tightly. Students proclaimed that the toy drive was successful, even if the Haitians did not appreciate the toys. In response to a related article about how American images of Africa are often distorted, my students announced that "they did not want to know that there are cities in Africa." As they boldly stated, they preferred to leave Africa untouched by reality, ensconced in Disney make-believe.

A decline in empathy

What happened? Perhaps the class was simply moving too fast for my students, who are from small-town and rural Indiana and whose experiences of diversity and difference are limited. The journey from sympathy, to empathy, toinformed empathy (empathy plus knowledge), to social justice is a long, slow process. Maybe my students were not ready for "Toys for Haiti."

There is, however, another possibility—or at least another layer of complexity—to consider, namely, that students today have less empathy, or capacity for empathy, than previous generations had. While my reflections are admittedly based on anecdotal evidence, the empirical evidence to support this finding isemerging. A 2011 meta-analysis of seventy-two studies on empathy conducted on college-age students from 1972 to 2009 indicates a decline in empathy of 40 percent during that time period. The authors attribute the precipitous drop to the innate distancing of social networking technologies, and the rise of violence in video games and other electronic media (Konrath, O'Brien, and Hsing 2011). Amy Baugher, in her entry for the 2007  New York Times Magazine College Essay Contest, also points to the decline of empathy and social action among her generation, underscoring students' fear of deviating from a lockstep path that will (perhaps) ensure a financially stable future. Baugher's reflections suggest that the declining economic security of the middle class has contributed to the creation of a generation that is focused inward on self, not outward toward connecting with and helping others.

Perhaps ironically, despite the decline in measurable empathy, research on the biological roots of empathy and cooperation is booming. Research in fields such as neuroscience, primatology, social psychology, and cognitive ethology (the study of animals under natural conditions) is clearly demonstrating that while competition is innate to humans (and animals), so is cooperation and empathy. What seems to matter for humans is the culture that surrounds us. If that culture promotes competition, then our brains become wired to prioritize competition; if our culture promotes cooperation and empathy, our brains respond. This remarkable insight from science should give us confidence that humans are capable of producing a better, more humane, and empathic world than the one we currently have. As the prominent primatologist Frans de Waal has commented, biology is humankind's (and I should add, the planet's)greatest hope for the future.

Cultivating empathy

The sobering news is that changes underway in higher education are moving us away from the goal of creating a culture that nurtures empathy. For example, if the culture surrounding us truly shapes our capacity for empathy, then colleges and universities need to be providing our students with as many opportunities as possible for cultivating empathy. While the research is still in its infancy, it seems plausible to theorize that the classroom—where students learn with other students and a teacher and engage in conversation—is a setting that can foster empathy. The development of empathy relies on reading others' body language, hearing their voices, seeing their eyes and facial expressions, and perhaps even our unconscious awareness of their odor or smell.

In contrast, it is difficult to see how empathy can develop in an online learning environment; a MOOC with one hundred thousand students is the antithesis of the intimate, personal space of a classroom. This is not to suggest that cognitive learning is necessarily less in an online environment. Indeed, some of my graduate students have commented that they learn more (at least more content) in an online class. But we have yet to fully understand what is lost when our lives move online. We may be creating a generation less biologically capable of empathy.

Also under threat is what David Perkins refers to in his 2009 book,  Making Learning Whole, as "whole-game learning." Whole-game learning allows students to be involved in meaningful, real-life learning experiences. Depending on how it is structured, whole-game learning can include everything from a service-learning experience to an internship, and many other possibilities. Critically, whole-game learning always involves immersion in an experience situated outside the confines of the classroom; education moves outward, from the classroom to the community and the world. Such an approach to learning allows students to expand their empathic capacity. In many cases, it allows students to stretch the boundaries of their empathy to include not only those who are like them and share a similar life experience (in many cases, their classmates), but also those who are different from them and share fewer commonalities. As budgets tighten and the focus of higher education shifts toward skill-driven courses and outcomes-based competencies, and away from a broad education in the humanities and social sciences, the ability to develop a culture of empathy erodes even further. The decline of liberal education may trigger an even greater decline in empathy.

Perhaps it is fair to ask why any of this matters. I may care deeply about humans' relationships to other humans, animals, and the planet, but why should you—and why should our institutions of higher education? In his 2011 book,  The End of Growth, Richard Heinberg offers a compelling reason: the old ways of thinking about how we as humans structure our world must end. This is not a choice, but a mathematical necessity, as the world's resources are finite. The planet, as we know it, simply cannot survive if we continue to pretend that competition is the only natural way to relate to other beings. As science now tells us definitively, this way of thinking is deeply flawed; cooperation and empathy are just as possible. As Heinberg and many others are trying desperately to convey, we now need to begin to translate this science into human action in order to create a world with different priorities.

As the "Toys for Haiti" case study suggests, our current culture suppresses the very capacity for empathy that the planet needs now for its (and our) very survival. As a culture, we are headed in the opposite direction. For example, the young people Sherry Turkle profiles in her 2011 book,  Alone Together, prefer texting to talking on the phone. They want to put distance between themselves and others. Today's youth crave the sterility and disconnection of the screen, shunning the messiness that comes with interacting with another human being. They are the very students sitting in our classrooms, obsessing over their Facebook profiles and "friends" while slipping ever further into a solipsistic and hermetically sealed world. But as Turkle comments, many of them know there is more, and that they are missing something vital to the human experience. By prioritizing the nurturing of empathy through a liberal education, we can do much to effect positive change. We can help our students understand their connections to other humans, animals, and the planet—and perhaps, eventually, find their way back to themselves.


Baugher, A. 2007. "A Matter of Empathy and Action: Why College Matters." College Essay  Contest (blog), September 24, 09/24/a-matter-of-empathy-and-action-why-college

Heinberg, R. 2011.  The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Konrath, S. H., E. H. O'Brien, and C. Hsing. 2011. "Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis." Personality and Social Psychology Review 15 (2): 180–98.

Perkins, D. N. 2009.  Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Turkle, S. 2011.  Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.

Nadine Dolbis professor of education at Purdue University.

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