Taylor 2014: Empathy as Cure-All

Just resubmitted an article based on my dissertation: “Coming to Appreciate Diversity: Ontological Change Through Student-Student Relationships.” It focuses on the ways students in a unique graduate seminar become more open through listening to the personal stories other students shared in the course.

It was recommended I add clarity, as one may expect, but the more interesting (and constructive) critiques asked me to explore the topic in relation to theory on empathy. I began with Edward Taylor’s piece from 2014 (see below for citations) in which he says empathy is required for critical reflection (and therefore key for transformative learning). He shows this with a negative example–that is, a lack of empathy was associated with a lack of critical reflection. This left me unconvinced. In his example, a White student with police in his family outright rejected the perspectives of a Black female classmate involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. While it is clear that no transformative learning can take place if the White male refuses to reflect critically on his own positionality, it is not clear that empathy would be the exclusive mechanism by which he may begin to reflect critically. For example, his lack of reflection could be mitigated by fear that his classmates reject him.

Taylor provides some history on empathy as a concept, but a paragraph doesn’t quite do it justice. In his discussion empathy started to sound a bit like a cure-all magical concept a bit like Goleman’s emotional intelligence: if only we all had more of it! It explains so much!

Taylor’s article and another by Kasl and Yorks on building empathic space got me hungering for more conceptual clarity on empathy. Taylor’s over-broad definition of empathy led me to my usual source for careful but brief conceptual histories: Educational Theory. My advisor told me Susan Verducci had a good article on it, and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting beyond a superficial discussion of the benefits of empathy. What Verducci does is discuss a “constellation” of empathies and organizes them on a cognitive-affective spectrum. The only major work I know of (in passing) regarding empathy is that of Kant. But she goes way back to German aesthetics, Freud, neo-Freudians, humanists, phenomenologists, etc., etc.

I did not really launch into a discussion of empathy in my revisions, but it informed the revisions I made. Hopefully this time I’ll get a green light and have good news to share within a month or two.

Kasl, E. & Yorks, L. (2016). Do I really know you? Do you really know me? Empathy amid diversity in differing learning contexts. Adult Education Quarterly 66(1), 3-20.

Taylor, E. W. (2014). Empathy: The stepchild of critical reflection and transformative learning. Educational Reflective Practices, 2. 5-22.

Verducci, S. (2000). A conceptual history of empathy and a question it raises for moral education. Educational Theory, 50(1), 63-80.




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