The Death of Empathy: Who is to Blame?

What do misbehaving students, a bus crash in Coventry, the Tottenham riots and our current government have in common?

The concept of empathy is one I have long been interested in. Differences between students can often be attributed to varying levels of empathy – persistent low level misbehaviour speaks volumes about that particular child’s lack of empathy for students around him or her.  Generally speaking, the more empathetic a student is, the better their relationship with their peers and the adults around them; it comes as no surprise that these students often achieve more highly than less empathetic students.

Simon Baron-Cohen’s brilliant and precise ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty’ had me thinking about the links between empathy and student behaviour.  His assertion that certain people exhibit “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood” may seem only to apply on the surface to those with diagnosed pathological conditions and yet, as teachers, particularly in urban, deprived areas, do we not see these behaviours exhibited by our poorest behaved students on daily basis?  These students turn into the adults of the future, sometimes taking their low empathy levels with them.  Some of them become inconsiderate drivers, noisy neighbours, litter-droppers, looters and muggers.

Whose responsibility is it to teach people to consider others, to be more empathetic?

The curriculum (when we have one coherent one) ignores this life skill – it is overlooked by those who design the curriculum, perhaps out of a mistaken belief that it is not a teacher’s responsibility to develop levels in empathy in children.  We don’t explicitly teach empathy; it is a by-product of studying History, Literature, PSHE and RE but it is not something that is taught as a life skill that can mean the difference between success and failure.  It doesn’t fit onto a league table.  It would look odd nestled in the data outlining A*-C grades including English and Maths.  And yet, in our society – one that is struggling against a ‘me-first’ culture highlighted most horrifically by the Tottenham riots – we can’t afford to ignore the impact of ignoring this most human of skills.

Recently, in Coventry (a town blighted by the German bombing and then by some shockingly poor architectural choices), a bus carrying passengers crashed into a pawn shop, scattering the gold in the window display.  I would like to think that if I was on a bus and this had happened, my fellow passengers’ first instincts would be to check on each other, to make sure that everyone was safe, out of danger and uninjured.  But no: many of the passengers and onlookers began looting the gold, scrabbling in the debris for what they could gather up.  They left the scene with their pickings.  When reading this story, I couldn’t help but associate it with other instances of disintegrating empathy.  Only someone with very low levels of empathy could set fire to buildings that may be occupied during the Tottenham riots; only someone with very low levels of empathy could assault a Malaysian student and pretend to be helping him.  Lack of compassion has been very much in the news in the last few weeks – a recent study by the journal Psychological Science suggested this week that the less compassionate you are, the less moral you become.

Where, then, does a decreased ability to display empathetic behaviour come from?  Have we always been this way?  In a lesson with Year 11 students, we were discussing Hamlet.  In analysing the line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, my students made the link between the quality and style of leadership and the knock-on effects on state and society.  Claudius, the ‘king’, is rotten and therefore, the country is too.  We don’t have to travel too far to see the parallels in our own society.  Empathy is not a feature associated with the Coalition government, or those appointed by it.  Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement almost sums up my argument: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right”.  When you’ve finished being astounded by the sheer bullishness of the line, it is hard to find an iota of empathy in that sentence.  The sacking of Downhills Primary governing body by Michael Gove can be seen as yet another nail in the coffin of empathy.  The act in itself is the result of complex wranglings influenced by the need to demonstrate total control over a system that is powered, ultimately, by human beings with human feelings.  Whatever our opinions on school underachievement, the end result leaves onlookers asking uncomfortable questions about the methodology of improvement on such a public scale.

Combine Sir Michael Wilshaw with Michael Gove, add in cuts to services such as domestic violence support charities, whisk in a whole host of measures that adversely affect women and ethnic minorities, and sprinkle liberally with a reduction in public sector pay in the poorest areas and you’re left with a potent mix that may account for the unease in communities.  It’s a recipe that lacks one vital ingredient: empathy.

The inevitable consequence of a right-wing government that is more interested in the stick than the carrot and nothing in between can only lead to a society that reflects their own lack of empathy.  Society is a mirror of leadership.  I don’t imagine the Coalition government sees itself in the Tottenham riots, or the bus passengers that looted the pawn shop – but maybe it should.  Maybe it should.



  1. missmcinerney

    One of the issues for ’empathy’ is how closely it is linked to the concept of ‘identification’ and ‘projection’. To identify with someone you recognise a part of them in something you have experienced. For example, perhaps I see Wilshaw’s statement and I can identify with wanting a leader to take control regardless of whether or not they are going to be liked.

    But in empathy we don’t just identify we also take what we identify with *and* project it onto that other person. I.e. “If I were in your situation I would think xx, therefore you must feel xx”. In some ways this could be considered quite narcissistic, but it is also the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have done unto you” – and I guess there’s a reason why it is such a long-existing ethical imperative!

    One of the reasons why Gove and Wilshaw appear to be missing empathy is because they often don’t talk about what they identify with in teachers, or perhaps it is because most teachers don’t find much that they can identify with in Gove & Wilshaw?!

    • thenewstateswoman

      You can identify as someone interested in the concept of educational leadership. His desire to change standards in education and his method of transmitting that idea to the general public are two very different things; people are less likely to identify with his concept of leadership than they are to react to his apparent lack of empathy for teachers. If you take the idea of identification and projection and apply it to the bus crash, surely it presents a troubling view of the fractures in society?

  2. Don't Feed The Pixies

    there used to be what teachers talked about as the secret curriculum – the idea of teaching kids how to be good people as well as good students – and my feeling in these goal orientated times is that this has gone out of the window in many ways. Empty facts in order to pass exams does not equate to being educated

    I also think that it’s more than just education – increasingly we see game shows on TV where the idea is to try and bluff, lie and cheat your way to the prize, where it no longer matters why you are famous – so long as you are. More than ever we live in a society of the Me rather than the We

    I also think that the world around us increasingly shows us that there are no consequences to our actions. But i could be wrong – this violence and looting is nothing new and goes back to the dawn of time, maybe this tendency has always been present and the only thing that has changed is the number of people in one area and the amount of news coverage.

  3. Don't Feed The Pixies

    additionally – looting was never higher than in the middle of the air raids of WW2, so the idea that this lack of “empathy” is a new thing is something of a misnomer. What HAS changed is the immediacy of the images and thus our perception

  4. Maggie Learmonth (Hughes)

    Without empathy it’s difficult to be strategic – how can you anticipate behaviours, responses, reactions? See John Berger ‘Hold everything dear’

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