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Education’s Challenge: Culture of Criticism or Compassion?

When I read recently in Stanford Magazine that the Stanford Graduate School of Business had a course on compassion and that it regularly carried a waiting list, I was intrigued.  My interest was mostly due to the uniquely personal challenges I continue to face as I practice my own commitment to greater compassion for myself and others.

As I discovered, Stanford was not alone. The article on the Stanford GSB class highlighted studies proving that attitudes and activities of(what I call a “compassion culture,” and in particular self-compassion, have proven effective for students in reducing distress and preventing burnout., a central coordinating website for the global implementation of the Charter For Compassion, described 12 sectors – including Arts, Business, Education, Healthcare, Social Justice, Science and Research, and Women and Girls – of partners that have a compassionate action plan in place or are working toward the implementation of a plan.  The education sector lists more than 100 public and private partners globally in higher education alone.  The site also states that there is now significant evidence that fulfilling the mission of learning and education actually depends on the cultivation of a “compassion culture.”

While it is great to know that there is momentum around compassion culture, neither the article nor the site delved into what I thought was the most interesting part of my journey: the challenges of cultivating compassion culture. For me, it was and is not an easy journey, especially as a Black woman.  The difficulty I experienced as I navigated toward compassion showed me that it can be a significant paradigm shift.  My personal reflection was that this shift was even more significant for me given my particular history.

Let me explain. The paradigm of compassion culture encourages action and supports compassionate actions based on good-natured intent.  Through the prism of compassion, failure is not criticized but appreciated as a lesson learned based on a genuine attempt to make things better.

For most of us, this compassion culture is counter to the dominant, traditional “criticism culture” paradigm in which we are socialized. And, for most of us, one of the first places we learned this was in the context of education.

As early as I can remember, my father, a high performer throughout his educational and professional career, pushed me to excel in school. His approach, though, was low on encouragement and high on setting and meeting high expectations.  I was not encouraged to do well; it was simply expected.  There was no celebration of excellence and good grades, only penalties for bad ones.  As you would expect, criticism was much more common than compassion.

To some it may seem harsh, but I believe he was doing the best he knew based on the criticism culture he had been raised in. He, like many parents, wanted his children to succeed.  Like most parents of minority children, he also wanted to protect us.  He instilled in us what he believed we needed to succeed and to be safe.

In diverse households, education is not only viewed as a path to a better life, but also as the best protection against the discrimination, disparities and inequality we will inevitably face.  Failure is a luxury we cannot indulge because it could risk our literal survival.  Criticism is the guardrail. Thus, for those of us of minority status, we learned to be critical of ourselves and others as part of a criticism culture that took on special significance. More than a tool for success, it was actually perceived as a tool for survival.

Criticism culture taught me to accept the trade-off that survival and success would be the long-term result of my competitive and self-critical behaviors, that my quick-tempered impatience with others and myself was a natural side effect of wanting to be the best. As such an integral part of my formative years, criticism culture became an integral part of my value system.  Like my father before me, I began to practice the behaviors I had learned. I could be more critical of myself than anyone, was extremely competitive and easily irritated and frustrated with others.

Over time, as part of my wellness research and work in the community, two things became clear: criticism culture was taking a toll on my health and the health of others, and there was another option.  The so-called “Type A” personality is characterized by high energy, competitiveness, ambition and greater susceptibility to stress and heart disease.  Psychology Today adds that, “while originally it was thought that global Type A Behavior Pattern was the culprit in coronary heart disease, research now shows that hostility, impatience and the other related traits are likely the real source of the problem.”

In an ironic and vicious cycle, at the same time that criticism culture is used as a survival tool, it is actually killing those who wield it. Once I realized how much stress my self-critical behaviors and criticism culture were causing and their consequent effect on my health, I began to take steps toward shifting my perspective.

Today, as I continue to learn techniques to rein in my critical and competitive side in an attempt to reduce my stress and preserve my health, it remains an ongoing challenge. As I reflect on my educational history and look toward my future in higher education, I am hopeful for the cultivation of compassion culture at higher education institutions such as my alma mater.  I am excited about what this could mean, and what it is meaning, for all students of higher education and diverse student,s in particular.

Criticism culture is a tradition best left in our past if we want to reap the long-term benefits of compassion culture. However, it is important to understand that for those whom criticism culture is second-nature and tied to deeply held beliefs about survival and success, shifting away from criticism to compassion can be difficult.  As we proceed, the best practice we will have in moving toward compassion culture will be showing compassion to the students for whom the shiftwill be most difficult.

Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, group fitness and dance instructor, wellness educator and author. Her column appears in Diverse monthly.


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