Empathy, Fear and Holistic Learning

Report from Canada: Developing the workforce or developing better citizens?

March 25, 2015

Recently my university’s student association proposed mandatory courses in Indigenous content as a graduation requirement for all students beginning in 2016.  A similar proposal had also just been approved at Lakehead University, and this requirement has been in existence since last year at the University College of the North. My initial reaction to this proposal was “Yes! Good idea!” As many of us are still reeling from the recent Maclean’s article that labeled Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, my feeling was that this required course could be a small step towards addressing that concern. And while I am unlikely to change my mind, I am also interested in learning other perspectives.

An article in the Winnipeg Free Press, arguing this as an opportunity for students to practice “empathy” elicited the comment: “What's next, mandatory courses on women's issues, LGBT issues?” I began to wonder if it’s not a valid question - not the suggestion that mandatory courses on those topics are objectionable, but the decision to prioritize one particular subject over another. The question of “why this, not that?” is a fair one.

An entire null curriculum could be examined here in terms of omissions and hierarchies.  The Free Press empathy  discussion intimates a “fear response. Whenever an oppressive system…is threatened in some way, the people who benefit from that system tend to get defensive. It makes them deeply uncomfortable to have their long-held beliefs challenged.” This “discomfort” is addressed in some discussions on the null curriculum in terms of the affective response generated by particular subject areas: “during the formulation of educational goals...we consign many topics to the null curriculum because of their potential affective impact. There are…certain feelings…that we do not want to induce in classrooms…” (Flinders et al. p35-36). One certainly cannot argue that mandating topics such as Indigenous History would not generate varying degrees of discomfort. The response to the Maclean’s article has been voluminous, and not all of it productive.

To generate more discussion, I brought up this issue on Facebook, and received a range of opinions. One person suggested “[a]n engineering degree involves completion of several mandatory physics and calculus courses. You learn a lot about kinematics...When speaking of road travel; they say that ‘speed kills.’ Hey, if people had a better understanding of kinematics, lives would be saved. Ergo, all university programs should include compulsory courses in advanced physics and calculus.” Another argued “Why this over that? We would be asking that question no matter what the subject was. Gotta start somewhere…Eventually, it'll all end up in high schools, junior high schools, elementary schools, and the community at large, but not if we resist it whenever an opportunity for empathy presents.” Another mentioned that “…speaking from my understanding of what they were during my BA…they spoke to what we perceive as having value, the canon of educational courses that ‘everyone needs to know’ to be a well-educated human. So, for example, everyone had to take English literature…if they are going to be part of a degree I think we should assess and craft them based on the same standards I would love to see us use for everything: what does this say about what we value and prioritize and how can we shift that?” And my favourite perspective of all: “ultimately, university has a great deal to do with disciplines and with being disciplined and having that discipline involve more than one's own subject area and address one's wider cultural context is really wise, in my view…i'd be in favour of mandatory courses wherever our capacity to love one another, ourselves, and other kinds of beings, too, regularly fails us.”

So I began to wonder: is the point of getting a degree simply to offer employment training or to become a better-rounded person? Though both the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead strategies actually seem to address both scenarios; offering indigenous content tailored to the student’s particular area of study. While some may argue that a science major, for example, should not be required to take an Arts course in this area, there seem to be some strong support for the benefits of such an idea. A recent article in the Washington Post outlines a specific need for STEM majors to also have a solid liberal arts foundation in their training indicating “[t]o innovate is to introduce change. While STEM workers can certainly drive innovation through science alone, imagine how much more innovative students and employees could be if the pool of knowledge from which they draw is wider and deeper. That occurs as the result of a liberal arts education.”

So is the concept of gaining a more holistic education in an area prioritized by an institution not a laudable goal? To me, there is much more value to adding this content than there is harm. The opportunity to gain valuable perspectives on our history and beliefs, in addition to being exposed to potentially “affective” material, encouraging students to step outside their comfort zone seems worth the effort.


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