“Rather than think of empathy as an ingredient in education – think of education and its disciplines – from history to literature to the arts – as ingredients in empathy.”
- Steve Nelson, Head, Calhoun
When Steve Nelson meets with prospective parents weighing whether or not to send their kids to Calhoun, he likes to start with a little exercise. After they’ve gathered in the school auditorium, he poses a simple challenge: “I want you to think of the one or two qualities you want your children to exemplify in their lives, and then speak them out loud.” A few seconds go by. And then the words start coming: Honesty. Compassion. Integrity. Empathy. Leadership. Imagination. According to Steve, it’s nearly the same words every time. “Why,” he then asks, “would you send your child to a school that does little or nothing to nurture and reward these qualities?”
You could think of this as Steve’s sales pitch, except that he doesn’t need a sales pitch – Steve is the principal at The Calhoun School, one of NYC’s most prestigious private schools, with a long and growing waiting list. No, the exercise is more to highlight what Steve perceives as the massive gap between what we value most in society and our current educational priorities – and maybe to subtly poke those parents of 4th graders who are already fretting about the SATs. “Most conversations about education today detract from, rather than nurture, empathy. You can’t have an education system focused on competition above all and expect to cultivate empathy.”
To be sure, Calhoun has excellent academics and many of its graduates do compete for spots in the country’s top universities. But infused in its curriculum, its teachers and staff, even its physical classroom design, is a philosophy of learning based on creativity, diversity, community involvement, and yes, empathy. For Steve, rather than be a component of education that lives parallel to academics, empathy should permeate everywhere. And when it does – and education is done right – the result is empathic kids going out into the world.
What does this actually look like? You can see it in the small things like the Senior-Freshman mentorship relationships. Seniors, after all, remember all too well the challenges of Freshman year – both in and out of the classroom – and from that understanding can provide a mentorship role more beneficial than even the most adept guidance counselor. Today’s Freshmen are tomorrow’s Seniors, and the cycle continues.
But it also manifests itself in school projects. Steve described one in particular that was especially poignant. Each year, Calhoun 4th graders volunteer at a local retirement community. During one such visit, the 4th graders were tasked with interviewing elderly residents about their past, and especially, what they remember life being like when they were 9 years old – what it was like arriving from another country and not knowing the language, what New York City sounded and smelled like, what they dreamed of becoming at that age. The students suggested they take the stories and turn them into a play, which they then performed – that’s right – in front of their new cross-generational friends. We’re told there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
During the course of the project, these 9-year olds were learning about individual stories, about New York history, about how to interview and how to write, direct, and perform in a play. But more importantly, the technical components of writing and putting on a play led to understanding, as students first listened and then literally took on the characters of the people they met. To Steve, that was the whole purpose. When you’re educating this way, he is confident, cultivating empathy is not only possible but inevitable.