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EMPATHY AND THE COMMON CORE: “Oh, say can you feel?” .. By Merrill Hope



Empathetic learning is all the rage in the Common Core.  They call it SEL (Social & Emotional Learning).  Sort of like the newfangled “empathetic medicine” where I suppose the surgeon feels the pain of the patient.  Hopefully, not while operating.   Yup, put yourself right into someone else’s shoes, literally.  Not sympathy where I feel your pain but rather, I KNOW your pain.  Yup, empathy.  Well, your 9-year-old better have a whole lot of it 10 months a year, Monday through Friday between the hours of 8am-3pm   because, like with everything else in CCSS (Common Core State Standards), empathy’s been revised, rebranded and repackaged for the 21st Century classroom.


So, what is empathy?  Webster’s defines it as the “identification with and understanding of the thoughts and feelings of another.” Well, I’m not so sure that little Johnny has very much of that character trait under his kindergarten belt.  How can he possibly identify with something he hasn’t lived to understand or have the learned trait of compassion for the feelings of another human being?  He can’t. 


Empathy is a feeling “deep in your soul, you were half now you’re whole…” That’s why you are a “people who needs people.”  But at this age, little Johnny isn’t among the luckiest people in the world.  He only knows the pain of a time out.  Nope, a 5-6-7-8-9 year old really doesn’t care all that much about his classmate’s feelings.  However, we are legislating empathetic learning in a classroom, ever walking the proverbial fine line between education and indoctrination. 


Yes, empathy is a great trait; however, we humans don’t really begin to flex our empathetic muscle much until after we set foot in a world outside of me, myself and I.  For some, that day never comes but for most of us, we get there through life’s experiences.  Yeah, move out of mom and dad’s basement!  Enter the rat race! Lose your job or a loved one!  Have a few joys and sorrows, successes and failures!  Still can’t find your empathy, become a parent.   Instant empathy!


But this is not how our children are coming to empathy compliments of CASEL (Collaborative Academic, Social & Emotional Learning); and this is the public educational mindset that’s been in a classroom for at least 10 years.   In fact, the 2013 CASEL guide titled “Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs: Preschool and Elementary school edition” is “dedicated to advancing the science and practice of school-based social and emotional learning (SEL).  CASEL’s mission statement is to “make social and emotional learning an integral part of education from preschool through high school.”  Maybe that’s why there’s so little time for exact sciences, concrete math and classic literature. 


But what CASEL calls empathy isn’t empathy at all.  It’s sympathy.  You can feel or project feelings onto another person’s situation without ever experiencing it.  Ever see that online video of the British school children absolutely out-of-their-minds, sobbing, as they describe the many ways climate change and human beings are killing Mother Earth?  That’s sympathetic-learning.  Well, maybe, Clockwork Orange-style learning.


So, let’s look at sympathy, what we feel for our fellow humans sans the actual shared experience.  Sympathy is defined as a “relationship between individuals in which whatever affects one affects the other in a similar way; the capacity to share another’s feelings.”  But don’t let that dramatic difference stop the Common Core classroom where empathy is systematically implemented as a social skills tool used connotatively to mean sympathy.  Can you say Newspeak? 


Linda Darling-Hammond, a major stakeholder in CCSS and CSCOPE, sits on the CASEL board of directors while other esteemed colleagues hail from the reaches of the Fed Led Ed creative hub, the University of Chicago.  Should we be trusting these same folks, many of whom are behind the Common Core, to design these litmus tests of acceptable and “positive social behavior” for our children and future generations? 

Furthermore, CASEL touts it “began the tradition of identifying SELect programs in its ‘Safe and Sound: An Educational Leaders Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning” as far back as 2003; CASEL even self-proclaims their corresponding documentation as groundbreaking because it provided an overview of the SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) field.   Was there an outbreak of low E that year?  Was there an outcry for higher E-quotient?


There has been a meteoric rise  of the IEP (Individual Education Plan) over the past decade.  Any correlation to CASEL and their SELect?  In California, 2005 was a pivotal year in the redefinition of social/emotional/mental health in the classroom.  Check-listed traits of high-functioning autism were broadened on the spectrum and lobbyists fetched big bucks for many of our local public schools.  That same year little golden state suburban school districts used a peculiar term to describe a kindergartner’s behavior: “Little Johnny has no empathy.”


Long gone are the days where kids can be kids in school, especially little boys who, by nature, are empathy-deficient and are genetically wired to resolve differences with their fists.  But in the empathetic classroom we will have none of that behavior.  In fact, you might need to glue that fidgety kindergarten boy to that floor mat during story time.  Move and it may be ADHD.  By the way, have you heard that Common Core and Pearson have a “bonafide” tool to test for that now?  Yup. Bona-fide ADHD.


So what happens to the perfect child when (s)/he slips up?  Oh no, little Johnny woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  He is not feeling very empathetic.  He is feeling 6.  He’s had an outburst, punched a kid on the playground and now is crying.  He also called a kid a mean name and he brought peanut butter in his lunchbox. Red alert!  Little Johnny is now on the SEL radar but that’s okay because the intervention team is right around the corner, lined up as far as the eye can see! They are ready to assess, checklist, diagnose and make a empathy plan for your kid all under the safe school policies of your 21st Century public school education code.  But wait, did little Johnny destroy property?  Defame the schoolyard? Burn down a building?  Nope, just a little low E.


For all its claims of unbridled rigor, CCSS is a social & emotional learning apparatus.  CASEL brings the five competencies directly to your child’s hard drive: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.  In theory, great ideas.  In reality,  to do all or any one of these things requires the ability to “recognize one’s emotions and thoughts” and their real or perceived impact on others around them.  It requires regulating one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors during school hours.  This also includes “managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.”  Isn’t that a lot for a 3rd grader to do besides cursive.  Oh, I forgot, no cursive in school anymore. 


Today, children must have the wherewithal to “take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior…” while maintaining “healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.  This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.” Is this before or after lunch? 


You know, by all internet accounts and puff pieces on Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and the late Steve Jobs, doesn’t seem any of the above were engaged or empathetic students in their K-12 days.  Yet these very same hands are all over 21st Century learning data-mining machine.   Oh, for goodness sake, how could such self-absorbed, self-involved and empathy-deficient boys grow up to become astounding innovators and entrepreneurs?  These are the traits of focused, geeky, genius, inspired, free-market leaning capitalists, not social entrepreneurs. Wonder how they would fare in today’s public school climate?   Asperger’s, Oppositional Defiance and ADHD with a side of OCD? IEPs for all.  You have to wonder though, does this brave new “empathy” move us closer to Orwell’s vision than to Einstein’s vision of the future.  Einstein, not the best student either…


Mom, dad, you okay with all this? 

Merrill Hope is a contributing writer to Save America Foundation who has also blogged for other outlets including City on A Hill and Lady Patriots.   Her articles have also appeared in As A Mom’s (AAM) MinuteMom Magazine.  Over the years, she’s inked articles and columns for the Hollywood Reporter and Backstage West.  A founding member of CURE (Citizens United for Responsible Educaiton), a chair on AAM Workshop and a guest speaker, she is also on Twitter @ Merrill  Hope @outoftheboxmom.

Sources at http://casel.org/guide/, http://startempathy.org/; https://www.ashoka.org/; http://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/Final-Summary-for-HR-2437.pdf; http://sshs.promoteprevent.org/publications/prevention-briefs/social-and-emotional-learning

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3 Responses to EMPATHY AND THE COMMON CORE: “Oh, say can you feel?” .. By Merrill Hope

  1. J.R. September 9, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    This reminds me of when I was shown a video in a class called interviewing skills. The video was of a welfare mom who was receiving section 8 housing, food stamps and welfare checks and we were supposed to empathize with her because she was using her welfare money to do her hair and nails. Her self esteem was important you know.

  2. crunchyprogressivemama September 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    “You know, by all internet accounts and puff pieces on Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and the late Steve Jobs, doesn’t seem any of the above were engaged or empathetic students in their K-12 days. Yet these very same hands are all over 21st Century learning data-mining machine. Oh, for goodness sake, how could such self-absorbed, self-involved and empathy-deficient boys grow up to become astounding innovators and entrepreneurs? These are the traits of focused, geeky, genius, inspired, free-market leaning capitalists, not social entrepreneurs.”

    I do take your point…..however, given the influence Bill Gates and many other corporate reformers have on current education policy (CCSS itself, for example) and his lack of empathy for what public school students and teachers are going through thanks to policies Gates himself has been pushing, one does wonder if the lack of empathy is a good thing, his entrepreneurship notwithstanding.

  3. Michelle September 14, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    As a teacher who has used CCSS for a few years now, I can confidently say CCSS doesn’t include empathy. It includes courtesy and attentive and purposeful listening/sharing. If this person thinks that’s empathy then she needs to check a dictionary because there isn’t a single CCSS I’ve seen that says the student will reciprocate feelings. You don’t need to share a feeling to develop the ability to understand someone else’s reasoning. I think I’m going to start saying that the CCSS includes potatoes. Let’s see how many people believe me without bothering to read it for themselves. LOL!

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