In the society of capitalism and homo homini lupus, to teach empathy in schools means to teach the future man or woman to take their narcissistic eyes off their ego
The word “empathy” refers to the ability to understand the emotions and feelings of another person or, more simply, to know how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes. The word comes from ancient greek empátheia, consisting of en-, “inside”, and pathos, “suffering or sentiment”, a word that was used during theatre performances to indicate the emotional connection between the performers and the audience. Today, in the context of human sciences, empathy profiles an attitude towards others characterized by the commitment of understanding a person by excluding any emotional inclination and any moral judgment, so it isn’t only a simple harmony or identification with the other person. Developing this skill is fundamental to create trustworthy relationships and friendships, to make the right decisions, and to fight injustice.
Aware of the importance of educating the youth in developing this attitude, the Danish government has enforced teaching empathy in schools since 1993. For students from 6 to 16 years old, there is a so-called Klassen Tid, an hour a week dedicated to empathy, a subject considered as important, and with the same dignity as the common subjects like math or history. During the Klassen, Tid students discuss their problems, aspirations, and fears both publicly at school, as well as privately at home. Thanks to the teacher’s help, the class then helps in finding a solution based on active listening. In doing so, the kids are educated to listen and to comprehend the other’s discomfort and this helps in building healthy relationships, preventing bullying, and – considering the future as well – promoting the success of tomorrow’s leaders, managers, or entrepreneurs. One of the methods used by the Danish to teach empathy is teamworking, thanks to which students learn not only to excel over others but to build a sense of responsibility in helping those who are not as capable, and keeping the competition as a challenge against oneself.
The valor of this approach in a digitalized and always more humanly distant society is quantifiable: research at the University of Michigan, for example, has analyzed how the students of today are 40% less empathic than the students from the ‘80s and ‘90s; this corresponds with an increase in mental health problems and depression. Nevertheless, the pandemic we have just passed certainly contributed to increasing human distance making it even more difficult to develop this ability with our neighbours. However, working on oneself in this sense and passing on the importance of doing so to the youth, is fundamental because it helps self and others’ acceptance, to easily work on negative emotions, incentive self-regulation of behavior, and cooperation. In some way, in the society of capitalism and homo homini lupus, to teach empathy in schools means to teach the future man or woman to take their narcissistic eyes off their ego and to get used to the idea of being part of a complex system in which no one is left behind because it is the responsibility of the most skilled to support the lesser ones.
And what about Italy? In Italy, we find similar experimentations as well. However, these, not being institutionalized for every school, are only isolated projects, required by the long-term vision of some principles of certain institutes. To think of importing a similar idea in Italy today and applying it on a wide scale would probably lead to unsatisfying results which could also be counterproductive. Indeed, the situation is quite different in Italy, when compared to Denmark, due to their different cultural backgrounds: in Denmark, for example, they do not have the Italian chaotic political climate and they have a deeper civic spirit. These circumstances, typical of developed societies, allow to concentrate on different themes and start projects aiming to increase the citizens’ human valor; unfortunately, today’s cultural foundation in Italy, especially in some geographical areas, is far from affording this luxury, for it is too busy unraveling from the loud social jungle with poor civic sense, and the more urgent themes, needing urgent solutions, are very distant from contemplating the inclusion of empathy among the mandatory classes in school.