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The Double-edged Blade of Empathy in Public and Higher Education

Tell me if this sounds familiar, "What we need are more understanding and empathetic teachers and faculty. If they really understood their students and genuinely cared about them, we'd see higher rates of student success."

I cannot count the times I've heard something like this, placing in whole or part the burden of our students' success on teacher and faculty empathy (or the lack thereof). Clearly, there are some individuals in the profession of education who could indeed be more empathetic. We all find ourselves at times in our lives when a little more understanding of our situation could make a positive difference in our day. More popularly, you might recall President Barak Obama's drawing attention to what he termed an "empathy deficit" across the world. I consider myself rather high in empathy for students. Yet, empathy does not always have the influence we might expect.

Paul Bloom (a professor at Yale University) is a leading psychologist who specializes in the study of how ethics, religion and language influence people’s perceptions. Among his more recent works is "Against Empathy" (2018). In it, he cautions us against using empathy as a central driver in moral and just behavior. In essence, Bloom sees empathy as a flawed and deeply emotional reaction leading to bad decisions. Fritz Breithaupt looks through a similar lens in "The Dark Sides of Empathy" (2019). He sees empathy across a spectrum of behaviors (good and bad), here driven by "Homo Empathicus." In using this term Breithaupt acknowledges that while human beings are biologically inclined toward empathy, it requires a culture to support it in order to flourish. There is still active debate on the definition of empathy (Fernandez & Zahavi,2020). The literature on empathy is vast, and growing...and not in agreement.

When we attempt to promote a value across any group of people, we are attempting to shift a culture. If you've been following my articles, I look to the work of Edgar Schein. Millerd (2022) does an excellent job summarizing his model. At the base of any culture is what Schein calls "assumptions." These build or drive upward to create "values" across groups and organizations. At the top of this hierarchy we find "artifacts and creations." You can also think of these as "celebrations" reflecting the assumptions and values of that culture. As we look to the culture of teachers and faculty, and their assumption of empathy, you will encounter a wide spectrum of differences. When leaders assume that an increase in empathy will result in an increase of student performance or success, they enter a dangerous assumption at the base of that pyramid of thought.

Creating more "empathetic educators" will rely heavily on your definition of empathy. Does this mean we need more latitude in submission of assignments? Maybe it's more about recognizing how the colonization of the curriculum has tainted the learning materials from the perspective of minorities? Perhaps the major issue is in how we look to normative assessment in our Western world as a reflection of performance? How about more training for faculty and teachers bringing them up to speed on the complexity of the lives of their students, backed by demographic data and focused studies on populations and geographic variables? This "gap perspective" grows with every variable we address, even that of the "biological assignment of gender'" at our birth and whether or not we identify with this construct at all. Empathy for these and all differences across humanity when staked on top of the complexity of modern life creates an almost insurmountable summit. Or does it?

When we look at Artificial Intelligence (AI), you can stack as many variables as you like into your model. The capacity of a computer is still limited by the scope of its network and processing connections. As Quantum Computing takes hold, even these limits become theoretical as far as calculations per nanosecond arrive. Can we build empathy into AI models? Or, is AI actually building empathy in us? Rust and Huang (2021) see this as the convergence of a "Feeling Economy" in very real part fostered by AI. College presidents, provosts, deans, superintendents, principals, and education administrators are a key part of the empathy landscape in higher and public education as they direct resources toward Schein's "Assumptions" and "Values" at their respective universities, colleges, and school systems toward an increasing emphasis on empathy.

As we do this, we must tread carefully and follow the data. We must reach consensus on our definition of empathy. We must better understand how we recognize, reward, and measure empathy, particularly in educators. More importantly, we must acknowledge that there are two sides to the blade of empathy. We cannot assume that "increasing" empathy alone will result in a better world for our students, and for us.


Bloom, P. (2018). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Breithaupt, F. (2019). The dark sides of empathy. Cornell University Press.

Fernandez, A. V., & Zahavi, D. (2020). Basic empathy: Developing the concept of empathy from the ground up. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 110, 103695.

Millerd, P. (2022, June 7). Edgar Schein - organizational culture: Artifacts, values & assumptions. Boundless by Paul Millerd. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from

Rust, R. T., & Huang, M. H. (2021). The feeling economy: How artificial intelligence is creating the era of empathy. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

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