Thursday, June 26, 2014

Achievement vs. Empathy

Maybe it’s not as bad as we think it is.

According to a Harvard University study most parents want their children to be high-achievers and to gain happiness through achievement. Of course, the researchers find this to be bad news.

It seems that parents pay lip service to empathy—the pseudo-value that most educators want children to acquire—but they are really more like Tiger Moms.

Of course, if this were as true as the study suggests it is, the nation would have risen up with one voice to praise the Tiger Mom.

It didn’t, so we take all of this discussion skeptically.

It might be that parents value student achievement, but perhaps they do not value it enough. Or perhaps their feelings do not translate into the kind of parenting that will produce the desired results.

Of course, parents are only one side of the equation. The study also suggests that schoolteachers also value achievement over empathy, but what are they teaching these children?

Are they teaching the value of achievement? Are they helping children to hone their skills to compete with children in the rest of the nation and the world? Or are they paying lip service to achievement while teaching self-esteem and empathy?

As it happens, the Harvard study tells us that empathy is not being ignored. It is simply being put in second place. For all I know, children would be happier if empathy were put in fourth place.

The Atlantic’s Jessica Lahey writes:

If there is any good news to be found in this report, it is that while we may value other things above empathy, we still care about it, and want our children to value it. While only 22 percent of the students surveyed ranked caring first on their list of priorities, almost half of them students ranked caring second, and 45 percent thought their parents would rank caring second as well.  

But, this is not necessarily good news. Perhaps it explains why American schoolchildren, on the whole do poorly on international tests of math and language.

Lahey explains:

While 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Note well that the educators identify moral character with empathy. It’s a sleight-of-hand. They are so viscerally opposed to competition and achievement that they do not understand that sports, for example, builds character by teaching children to play the game by the rules and to show good sportsmanship.

They also fail to see that, for someone who is competing in the arena or the marketplace or the battlefield, empathy is counterproductive. If you feel for your opponent and feel badly for him when he loses you will become a weak competitor.

The educators at Harvard are distressed that their efforts to indoctrinate parents have not been more successful, but perhaps it’s a good thing that parents are unwilling to sacrifice their children’s success in favor of being caring and compassionate.

According to Lahey, Harvard educators want:

As the report shows, simply talking about compassion is not enough. Children are perceptive creatures, fully capable of discerning the true meanings in the blank spaces between well-intentioned words. If parents really want to let their kids know that they value caring and empathy, the authors suggest, they must make a real effort to help their children learn to care about other people—even when it’s hard, even when it does not make them happy, and yes, even when it is at odds with their personal success. 

The educators are willing to sacrifice success in favor of doing charity work, giving to the neediest. They want to live in a nation of social workers, not a nation of entrepreneurs. They are not teaching empathy as much as they are teaching guilt. What they call empathy seems to be a way to assuage guilt for being a capitalist oppressor.

Of course, it is not self-evident that the less fortunate will profit from more compassion and caring. Perhaps they would do better to learn how to gain happiness through achievement and success.

The educators and psychologists are purveying empathy. They see it as the supreme moral value and believe that it solves all problems and produces happy well-adjusted children. We note, yet again, that empathy is not a moral value at all and that it is so poorly defined that it could mean just about anything, from feeling someone’s pain to getting along with others.

Psychologist Michele Borda argued for empathy:

Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health,wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized.

Of course, these values are anything but neutral. They are intrinsic to liberal and progressive politics. Whatever else you think of Borda, she is trying to enlist parents and teachers in the daunting task of brainwashing children to make them more like her, to affirm her values.

Unfortunately, this hodge podge is anything but true. Being civilized means following rules, communicating clearly, showing respect for others and competing fairly in the arena. The nation's great master of empathy, Bill Clinton was happy to feel everyone's pain, but that did not prevent him from inflicting some on hapless young women.

We are currently living through a period in our history where we have an empathetic government. We have a government that cares for people, but we also have a government that prefers to keep people in a position where they need to be cared for.

Obviously, it depends on what you call caring. A government that really cared about people would make it easier to create jobs. A government that really cared would be more interested in job creation than in handouts.


David Foster said...

The term "empathy" is used in two different ways:

Empathy 1 is the ability to perceive the emotions of other people, and hence the ability to predict how they will react emotionally to various things.

Empathy 2 is about actually *caring* about the emotions and general well-being of those other people.

They are very, very different. A good con man will have a lot of Empathy 1 but little Empathy 2.

Webutante said...

I've been a mediator in the courts for a number of years, especially in the Teton County, WY courts in summers.

Last year the mediation association was taken over by the University of Wyoming extension here in Jackson. The head of this group is an educator. She came in and observed for a number of weeks. After observing me conclude a successful mediation with a co-mediator, she turned to me and said that we didn't show enough empathy (!).

Evidently she observed this in other mediations as well. The upshot was that she fired all us mediators who had successfully mediated with great track records here for years and is installing more empathetic ones.

Goodness gracious! This is the new face of college run programs.

As mediators, we are trained not to be therapists or too empathetic, and instead to respectfully listen, hold the space open with ground rules so people can begin to find a mutually satisfactory solution to their dispute.

In all the years I've done this, I've only had two cases fail to reach a resolution and go back to the a botox case and the other a landlord who wanted to move in and live with her tenant after he moved into her property!!

If it ain't broke, why fix it is my motto. However, the new face of greater empathy in the courts has another opinion. Lord help us all.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Et tu, Wyoming.

Anonymous said...

"The term 'empathy' is used in two different ways."

Empathy is often used as synonym of 'sympathy'.

Sympathy is about feeling of affection or compassion, sometimes blindly without an ounce of empathy.

Empathy is more of a cerebral exercise where one tries to understand how others are thinking and feeling. It's essentially an amoral exercise. A film like GOODFELLAS and a film like DOWNFALL makes us empathize with gangster thugs and Nazi henchmen. But such empathy doesn't endorse the moral value of such men.

Empathy is thus somewhat dangerous. We need it because we need to access and read the minds of others. But empathy can be used for sympathetic or manipulative reasons.

Also, empathy is a double-edged sword. It can lead to increased or decreased sympathy. In some cases, empathizing with a murderer can make one feel more sympathy for him, as happened with Truman Capote when he wrote IN COLD BLOOD.

But empathy can make us hate someone even more by helping us see past his/her nice chummy facade and accessing his/her inner self that could be rotten.

You hate some people more the more you get to know them.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't achievement and empathy be more or less the same thing?

Those who seek achievement seek higher knowledge, and higher knowledge enables people to empathize with the wider world.
If one reads more novels and history, one knows more about the world. More empathy.
If one ditches homework and listens to rap music all day, he thinks he's some badass cool punk who should be worshiped by the world. Liberals say rap music is the new poetry!

If one learns medicine and technology, one is better able to serve the community with special skills.
It seems to me that achievement and empathy, while not the same thing, serve one another. After all, what good is your empathy if you're lacking in special skills to serve people?

If someone needs a eye doctor, what good are you to him if you say "I feel for you but I can't fix your eyes"?
But if you've acquired special skills of an eye doctor, you might be able to fix his eyes. I think a person with eye problems prefers a doer over a talker.

Empathy or no empathy, a person is useless without skills that are useful to the human community. And skills are the products of effort and achievement.
Surely a poor community is better served by people with skills in business, engineering, job creation, and other skills than by people with lots of gooey feelings but no special skills.

The problem of black communities is they are filled with leaders who talk the talk about 'caring' but are utterly lacking in skills and attitude to run businesses and create jobs.

People love Oprah, the queen of compassion(who's worth over 2 billion btw), but what good are people like her to Detroit? She can sit on a sofa and tell the world she cares oh-so-much, but does she have any real skills to serve the community?

And what did Obama do as community organizer? Did he open up a single business and hire a single black person without work? Or, did he sit in his office and shake hands and make lots of noises about caring? Any two-bit politician can do that.

David Foster said...

There is also a phenomenon of faux empathy...people attempting to show off their moral goodness by using certain words and phrases, like "I understand your pain." The objective is *neither* to achieve Empathy 1 OR Empathy 2, as I have defined these terms (and I believe Anon 10:56 is correct as to the proper terminology), but rather to make listener THINK that one has these attributes.

I suspect that the U Wyoming person that Webutante encountered is either herself of this type, or allows herself to be readily manipulated by those who are.

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster, yes, Simon Baron-Cohen expressed two forms of empathy he called Cognitive and Affective, and as you express Cognitive empathy allows you "theory of mind" that makes it easier for sociopaths to manipulate people.

In regards to "government of empathy" I had an interesting conversation recently from someone from socialistic Europe, and she was surprised by the level of social charity and volunteerism in the US, and her explanation was that since the government took care of the weak and such, that people don't worry about them as much.

So the more you think "the system" will care for people, the more freedom you have to not care about people outside of your immediate family and friends.

So this helps explain the divergent opinions of liberals and conservatives over Christian values of charity, with conservatives saying charity is always personal, and taking collective money as taxes and using for charity is coercive, and reduces people's natural inclination to help others.

Anonymous said...

In a '72 college class, a student used the old "do not bind, staple or mutilate me" to argue that the govt operates on rules & regs, not for individuals.
He wanted a "more caring individualized govt".

Prof: So you want govt to like you?
Student: Yes.
Prof: By that logic, it would be able to Hate You at some point.

Hippies always scared me. Seriously. -- Rich Lara

n.n said...

Empathy is related to self-esteem. Achievement is related to self-confidence. The former without the latter engenders corruption. While the latter without the former engenders arrogance.