Some Thoughts on Pedagogy and the Problem of “Empathy”

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Last week, my provost asked me about the research on “empathy” in teaching and learning. He’s interested-as I am-in how my university can improve student success, become more inclusive, and create a climate in which all of our students may learn in meaningful and powerful ways. Any faculty developer would love to be having these conversations with their chief academic officers, and to see administrative support for these objectives. Therefore, I’m quite happy for the opportunity to dive into the research in this area; I’m familiar with some of it, but I know I have a lot to learn. So I tweeted out a query:

And, wow, did y’all respond! I received a bunch of great references and suggestions, which I have compiled below this post for anyone to use as they wish.

I think it’s worth noting, however, that many of these resources don’t use the exact term “empathy” to frame their research or arguments. “Care,” “compassion,””understanding,” or several other terms proliferate, but empathy appears to be a somewhat malleable concept. And that actually affirmed some of the reservations I’ve held about the concept. Of late, it seems, “empathy” is an affect we are constantly enjoined to display, to the point where it almost seems like it’s a synonym for “be nice” or “stop with all this yelling.” In the same fashion that “civility” really means “docility” in the hands of the pundit class, so too is “empathy” deployed in hopes of just making all this unpleasantness simply go away. Have some empathy for those who don’t agree with you (and maybe I won’t get yelled at because of who I voted for) the Extreme Center tells us. Therein lies one of the dangers inherent in using “empathy” as a focus for our pedagogy: it is so malleable as to lose any significant meaning and thus become all things to all people. “Teaching with empathy” thus becomes merely the latest feel-good pedagogy to be sliced up into pithy quotes on edu-twitter. Hashtag ‘inspired.’

Specifically defined, empathy is a much more circumscribed concept. In the time-honored tradition of undergraduate essay introductions, let me present Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term:

1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

I’ve written about how, in this sense, empathy can be useful for students of History:

Empathy does not mean agreement, though we often use the concept as if it did. To empathize in the historical sense is to understand from someone else’s frame of reference…In my experience, students struggle with this idea of empathy, because “empathy” and “sympathy” are so often conflated. Students are averse to the idea of empathizing with people and ideas that seem antithetical to their own values, because they think they’re being asked to sympathize with, for example, those who opposed women’s suffrage, or favored Indian removal, or believed Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist. Getting students to see that to understand and to agree are distinct intellectual tasks enables them to move beyond the sort of linear thinking, and inability to tolerate ambiguity, that many of them bring with them to college.

I still think this is an important habit of mind for historians to utilize, but one that must be cultivated with an intentional awareness of the pitfalls inherent in conflating empathy and sympathy (or agreement). But as a larger value, one that asks to become our pedagogical praxis, empathy (as opposed to this more particular “historical empathy”) is laden with some significant problems.

As it’s most commonly deployed, empathy insists that we must see ourselves reflected in others in order for them to be accorded basic legitimacy. Jade Davis goes to the heart of the matter in her critical examination of empathy: “If the only version of an other a person an individual able to see is the one they can imagine and feel inside of themselves,” she argues, “many others will always be invisible or less than human, no more than a passing curiosity.” She continues: “Feelings are fickle and easily changed when trying to connect to the unrecognizable through avatars of the self. Empathy is already its own failure because it is the embodiment of a colonial sentimentality based on missionary thinking.” Empathy, for Davis, is an obstacle to decolonization, and thus confounds rather than promotes any emancipatory practice. Those of us committed to education as freedom and liberation need to sit with this assessment for a good long while.

We cannot escape the fact that the post-2016 political climate has served to place empathy (or, more accurately, the apparent lack thereof) in the forefront of our public discourse. The heartlessness of the ruling junta’s policies, from banning Muslims to stealing babies at the border, is written in every one of its endeavors. And one response to this stunning display of callous indifference to people’s basic humanity is to urge a greater effort toward “empathy.” It hasn’t taken very much for these calls to turn into a full-blown efflorescence of empathy-as-panacea discourse.  Many people want things to “be like they were” politically, but don’t recollect that for many others, things now are very much like they always have been. Instead, they lament some bygone age of empathy, and if we could only return to that magical time when everyone had a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, they say, everything would be better. Well, that sounds a little too much like “make America great again” to me-a childishly simplified reading of a fairy-tale past. In this usage, which I would argue is the prevalent one for our particular moment, empathy does exactly what Davis warned us about: it sublimates others to our own (heavily-idealized) sense of self. It is a declaration that another must be legible to us in order to be human, a declaration no less powerful for its being implicit or couched in noble intent.

So how do we avoid this “empathy trap?” How do we embody a pedagogy centered in recognizing and affirming the other without narcissistically demanding that they only reflect our own selves? One way forward, I think, lies in being more direct about what we’re really seeking. Returning to the point I noted above, much of the work on teaching with “empathy” actually deploys other language; in particular, it utilizes terms like “compassion,” “understanding,” or “care.” I think that’s telling. For example, one of the foundational works in this area is Nel Nodding’s 1984 book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Early on, Noddings tackles the idea of “empathy” as something that creates “care” (the act of “feeling with” on the part of subject toward object.  She writes:

The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines empathy as ‘The power of projecting one’s personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation. This is, perhaps, a peculiarly rational, western, masculine way of looking at ‘feeling with.’ The notion of ‘feeling with’ that I have outlined does not involve projection but reception. I have called it ‘engrossment.’ […] I do not project; I receive the other into myself, and I see and feel with the other. I become a duality. I am not thus caused to see or to feel-that is, to exhibit certain behavioral signs interpreted as seeing and feeling-for I am committed to the receptivity that permits me to see and to feel in this way. The seeing and feeling are mine, but only partly and temporarily mine, as on loan to me.

When this occurs, Noddings concludes, “Quite simply, I shall never again be completely without regard for [them]…I am now prepared to care wheras previously I was not.”[1] This very type of receptivity, this implicit refusal to project oneself into every other context and instead create a radical sense of openness, is an ideal foundation for a pedagogy that can make teaching and learning truly emancipatory.

This joint-seeing and mutual experience-not owned but borrowed-is at the heart of what higher education should offer for all learners. When Paulo Freire declared that a critical consciousness is the sine qua non of a meaningful education, and that this critical consciousness would enable students to actively intervene in their own reality,[2] I think this is what he was talking about. To be critically conscious, one must realize that they are part of an interconnected world-that events, ideas, and people do not exist in a vacuum. In order to do this, students must be able to do more than “put themselves in someone else’s shoes.” They-we!-need to become radically open to the other and the other’s experience without demanding that they see themselves reflected in it. That is the type of pedagogical work we should strive to do.

For these reasons, I think it’s more fruitful to advocate for a pedagogy of care rather than a pedagogy of empathy, given the problematic baggage we’d have to carry with the latter. Even if we took pains to define “empathy” as closely as possible, then religiously stuck to that definition, we still cannot escape the vaguely narcissistic overtones and problematic self-centeredness with which the concept is easily-freighted.

It seems to me that a genuine, critically inclusive pedagogy strives for reception rather than appropriation, for radical openness rather than a quest for self-affirmation. If those are the goals we share, then it’s imperative we be mindful of the ways in which we frame our pedagogy. My own thought process has reached a place where “empathy” is too fraught a concept-especially in our current context-to entrust my pedagogical philosophy to. A pedagogy of care, on the other hand, welcomes students on their own terms, includes them for who they are, and-most importantly-commits us to doing the type of work to maintain that climate and approach.[3]

Seeing others as full and complicated human beings should not require their resonance with some part of our own selves. We don’t need to become them, or think that they could become us. We simply need to care.

Resources on “Empathy,” Care, and Compassion in Teaching and Learning:

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who responded to my initial query; this list represents all of your responses.

Christi Bergin & David Bergin, “Attachment in the Classroom,” Educational Psychology Review 21 (2009): 141-70.

Ellen Cushman, “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 7-28.

Eleni Damianidou and Helen Phlataka, “A Critical Pedagogy of Empathy: Making a Better World Achieveable,” Pedagogies: An International Journal, Volume 11, 2016 – Issue 3.

Jade Davis, “Draft Thoughts on Empathy and Decolonization,”, June 17, 2018.

Gwynn Dujardin, “Fear and Learning in the Historical Survey Course,” in Lang, Dujardin, and Stanton, eds., Teaching the Literature Survey Course: New Strategies for College Faculty. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series. West Virginia University Press, 2018.

“Engineers less empathetic than students in caring professions, study suggests,” ScienceDaily, Jan. 17, 2013.

L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass, 2013.

Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press, 1990.

Thomas F. Hawk and Paul R. Lyons, “Please Don’t Give Up on Me: When Faculty Fail to Care,” Journal of Management Education 32 (2008).

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge, 2003.

Richard E. Hult, Jr., “On Pedagogical Caring,” Educational Theory 29.3 (1979)

Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1992.

Maureen Linker, Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice. University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Sarah C. Motta and Anna Bennett, “Pedagogies of care, care-full epistemological practice and ‘other’ caring subjectivities in enabling education,” Teaching in Higher Education, Volume 23, 2018 – Issue 5: Gender, Post-truth Populism and Higher Education Pedagogies.

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press, 1984.

Johnmarshall Reeve, “Teachers as Facilitators: What Autonomy‐Supportive Teachers Do and Why Their Students Benefit,” The Elementary School Journal 106:3(2006):225-236

Laura I. Rendón, Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice, and Liberation. Stylus Publishing, 2014.

Mia Angélica Sosa, Annmarie Sheahan,Shiv Desai, & Shawn Secatero, “Tenets of Body-Soul Rooted Pedagogy: teaching for critical consciousness, nourished resistance, and healing Critical Studies in Education, 2018.

Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy, “The Empathetic School,” ASCD vol. 75, no. 6, March, 2018.

Andrea Velasquez, Richard West, Charles Graham, and Richard Osguthorpe, “Developing Caring Relationships in Schools: A Review of the Research on Caring and Nurturing Pedagogies,” Review of Education 1.2 (2013): 162-90.


  1. [1]Nell Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), quoted at pp. 30-31.
  2. [2]See Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 1974).
  3. [3]This is why, incidentally, I’m such a big fan of Dee Fink’s “Taxonomy of Significant Learning Experiences” for my course design; he explicitly includes the areas of “caring” and “human dimension” (as well as “learning how to learn”) as principal outcomes of any significant learning experience. It’s an excellent method for putting this larger ethos into operation for a specific course setting, and also for helping students manifest this approach to care for themselves and one another. See L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. 2nd ed. (San Franciso: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

2 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Pedagogy and the Problem of “Empathy””

  1. Hello! This is awesome! Have you considered the “Mattering” construct? There is great research out there that would indicate that students want to feel from their teachers (and parents and friends) that they matter.

    Components of mattering: attention, importance, dependence, ego-extension, being missed, and interest.

    Gordon Flett has a new book:

    And, I am working on this topic for my master’s thesis (but in a work setting).

    Here’s a great article – lots more out there on this!
    France, M. K., & Finney, S. J. (2010). Conceptualization and utility of university mattering: A
    construct validity study. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development,
    43(1), 4865

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