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Learning Critical Empathy: A Lesson From Journalism

What was it like to be George Floyd? In a textured October 16th The Washington Post podcast, a team of journalists wove a historically relevant, riveting, and compassionate narrative. Nothing of Floyd’s struggles with addiction or his softer side was secret, but neither is the character assassination that can come with caricatures or political posturing. Dedicated, long-form journalism can disentangle these threads, and such dexterity was on full display in the Post’s storytelling. Successfully conveyed was the desperation of a man who had recently lost his mother, his last hope for salvation and the name he spoke as he gasped for his final breath.

Dr. Patrice RankineDr. Patrice Rankine

We can never know what it was like to be George Floyd, but the reward for trying is that we cultivate our humanity. There is evidence that we also build a stronger public good. At educational institutions across the country, we teach the skills employers want: communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. Because we are inheritors of the Enlightenment, we tend to privilege the Cartesian ideal of “I think, therefore I am,” which we can find on college and university websites across the country: ideas, thought, inquiry. What we tend not to find is the word empathy, and yet this year we have learned more about the importance of a greater compassion — individually and collectively. Empathy can be taught because it is a habit of mind, similar to math or chemistry, making it an important analytical, or critical, endeavor. The journalists at The Washington Post were engaging not only in inquiry and research, but in critical empathy.

Three additional examples of critical empathy illustrate how we might recognize it. They bring us into close and intimate relationships with Black women, men and masculinity, and people in far-away places, temporally and spatially. Each example shows that particular critical crafts, like journalism, can deepen our empathy, which is part of how we come to deeper understanding.

The Visual Arts and Performing Arts

The first example comes from the visual arts. I recently spent some time on the website of Detroit artist Sabrina Nelson because she will be part of the upcoming Webinar series this spring in the University of Richmond School of Arts & Sciences, where I serve as dean. Her current work drew me into a web of associations relevant to her medium of choice. Her beleaguered and beautiful city and her identity as a Black woman buttress her art. “Why You Wanna Fly Blackbird” asks us what it might feel like to be an African American mother during these times. The work is evocative of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Captivity and efforts to break free from it are particular symbols from the very foundations of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The myths of Africans flying home frame Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon. Imprisonment is profoundly personal and local (in 2018, 33% of the prison population in the United States was Black), but it is also a common reality during a year when everyone surely feels some degree of isolation and confinement. Nelson demonstrates how important it is to understand particulars before moving toward generalization — or the universal. The visual arts can help us do that.


The novelist Nicole Krauss gives us a second example of critical empathy, from literature. In an interview with The Guardian, Krauss is asked why she wrote To Be a Man. Her response brings the reader into “her own experiences with men,” which include being “the mother of two boys and what it means to raise those boys into men in the context of this moment where the idea of manhood is so beleaguered and problematic and complex.” Krauss’s subject matter and her ideas raise the age-old question of whether a writer can truly inhabit the humanity of another. Whether or not we can, we are lost if we give up trying. In 2020, America is a divided country, and much of the chasm between us involves matters of identity and experience. Rather than dismiss whole swaths of people, there is reward in attempting to understand their position. Krauss reminds us that literature can help us do so.

The Study of Languages and Cultures

And then there is the payoff of learning another language. In my case, the study of Greek and Latin in college quickened emotions and an imagination that has only continued to expand throughout my life. The sound of classical Greek was to me as transformational as the sight of it, unlocking dormant mysteries that are quickened in our imagination, even if others set them aside for thousands of years. Over the decades, I have been intrigued about the links between this ancient language and other mysteries of the Mediterranean. For many, knowing the secrets of another culture leads them closer to their own time, perhaps the Portuguese of Brazil, with which I have also dabbled. The teacher leaves saudade (the bittersweet feeling of loss) in its original language because there truly is no translation, any more than the educational formation of the Roman that aemulatio conveys (the personal and peculiar mastery that comes after we have studied) has any precise parallel elsewhere. I have been witness to the privileging of new technology over older human crafts in educational curricula, but Google translate cannot compare to what is gained from sitting with a language that is not one’s own, over time.

All of these activities — from the performing arts to poetry and music — cultivate empathy. Empathy is critical, an analytical skill, not only because it can be taught, but also because once it is learned, the gains benefit people and society at large. The outcome of critical empathy is greater human understanding. We talk a lot about critical thinking as the outcome of good education, but we should make more room for critical empathy.

Dr. Patrice Rankine is the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and professor of Classics at the University of Richmond. 

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