Build a bridge …

Ms A Dare, Director of Humanities
Image of Ms Alison Dare, Director of Humanities
Ms Alison Dare, Director of Humanities, Brisbane Girls Grammar School

There is an amusing YouTube clip floating around on the internet at the moment. In this, a number of young people (in their late teens and early twenties) are made fun of as they express their angst over the so called ‘first world problems’ (FWPs) that beset them. These include enduring air conditioning that is set too low, having to make two trips to the car to get the groceries out, and Apple making too many new iPhones. The punchline of this particular piece occurs when a giant mobile phone (the imaginary iPhone 6) falls on one of the protagonists. The unambiguous point here is that young people lack perspective on the real issues facing most of the world’s population; that they are unable to see beyond their own increasingly insulated world, and that, as a consequence, don’t know how good their lives really are. A damning assessment indeed; but what does it mean for us as parents and educators?

Sadly, the assertion that young people are becoming less interested in the world around them does have some validity. A recent study conducted in the United States of almost 14,000 university students between 1979 and 2009 found that empathy levels among this group had dramatically declined over the last thirty years (Zakrzewski, 2012, p. 1). This indifference to other peoples’ problems is exemplified by the often-heard saying ‘Build a bridge and get over it’.

Narcissism, which can be seen as a negative corollary of empathy, is also on the rise among university-aged students, which is perhaps unsurprising since narcissists are self-absorbed and tend to see other people in terms of their usefulness rather than true friendship. While these studies related to older students, the findings suggest that something was missing in their earlier development; that they weren’t cultivating the skills needed to connect with others (Zakrzewski, 2012, p. 1).

"As parents and educators, it is in our interest to encourage the development of empathy."
‘As parents and educators, it is in our interest to encourage the development of empathy.’

While ostensibly, young people may seem less interested in the broader world issues that surround them, it is important to challenge the notion that they are intrinsically less caring. If empathy really is declining, perhaps it is because of the way notions of care and compassion are represented in society. Furthermore, can we entirely blame young people for being self-absorbed when their access to the wider world is increasingly mediated by forms technology which, while supposedly connecting them to the world at large, increasingly steer them down a path of introspection?

While self-interest may be on the rise, it is obviously not a new phenomenon but normalised by some very deeply held assumptions embedded within our culture. Historically cast as dichotomous to self-interest and competition, empathy has been seen as a kind of ‘add on’ that we are civilised into — an admirable quality but not core to our base human natures, which are essentially driven by the fight for survival. Seen in these quasi-Darwinian terms, selfishness seems like a natural state of being. In some instances, it has been seen as downright folly.

The champion of Enlightenment thinking, Emanuel Kant, viewed compassion as a weak and misguided emotion, asserting ‘such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings’ (cited in Marsh, Keltner, & Smith, 2012, p. 39). Kant was making a clear distinction between empathy as belonging to the realm of feelings, as opposed to self-interest which was concerned with the thinking or ‘enlightened’ individual. If we dig deeper, our ideas concerning care for others have their foundation in ideas about the self, ideas which have become polarised in modern times (Vanden Eynde, 2004, p. 46).

On the one hand, the self is seen as autonomous, independent and primarily interested in pursuing its own interest. On the other, it is contingent, contextual, feeling and thinking, shaping its identity by action and interaction with others (Vanden Eyndne, 2004, p. 46). Modern Western thinking has tended to emphasise a version of the self that is autonomous, and in doing so has marginalised or ‘split off’ other versions. American ethicist Martha Nussbaum and others have called for a reintegration of emotions into moral thinking (2001, p. 1). Since empathy can be seen as crucial to the development of ethical awareness and the ability to make moral judgements, Nussbaum suggests that we need to reconceptualise empathy as not just an emotion but also as a cognitive position with an understanding that these two positions are co-dependent. According to Nussbaum our emotions are ‘suffused with intelligence and discernment, and thus (are) a source of deep awareness and understanding’ (2001, p. 1).

Nussbaum’s conception of empathy parallels recent research in the scientific field which suggests that compassion is not the opposite of reason, but rather is entirely rational, functional and adaptive. New studies show that compassion and benevolence are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology. One such study conducted by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns (cited in Marsh, Keltner, & Smith, 2010) gave participants a chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in the parts of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. It seems that helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire; that we are wired for helping others. Perhaps it is time to reintegrate the concept of self-interest with empathy, so that our students come to see that by helping each other they are ultimately helping themselves.

As parents and educators, it is in our interest to encourage the development of empathy as a way for individuals to ultimately lead meaningful lives and contribute to the society in which they live. However, acknowledging that compassion may be deeply rooted in our brains does not in itself make anyone more compassionate. Instead, the so called ‘compassionate instinct’ (Marsh, Keltner, & Smith, 2010) must be nurtured. At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, our students have many opportunities to develop empathy through Service programmes. Within the classroom, too, there is enormous scope for the development of empathy.

Research from Berkeley University’s Professor Dacher Keltner has shown that the experience of a sense of awe is a potentially positive emotion that can help students to develop empathy (cited in Zakrzewski, 2012, p. 2). According to Keltner (cited in Zakrzewski, 2012), when we encounter awe-inspiring phenomenon — which could include anything from the wonder of a great piece of music, to the beauty of a mathematical fractal pattern, or the inspiring non-violent actions of a great figure like Gandhi — we experience two things. The first of these responses is a sense of vastness, and the second is that we gain a new perspective on the world and our place in it. Keltner’s studies found that when we are in the presence of something greater than ourselves, we become less self-conscious and feel more connected to the world around us (cited in Zakrzewski, 2012, p. 2).

Curious about the FWP clip, I searched a little further on the Internet and found dozens of similar spoofs making fun of young people. Interestingly, these seemed to be made by people from the very same demographic; there is even a rap song dealing with the theme. Could it be that running alongside this apparent self-absorption is a genuine yearning for connection with the wider world in all of its complexity? As a teacher at this School, I know that when students are truly engaged in the learning process their minds open up to the creative possibilities that surround them and the world in which they live, firing the imagination to take them further into the world of knowledge. At its most fundamental level, the process of education is itself awe-inspiring — and a very powerful way to grow more compassionate individuals.


Marsh, J., Keltner, D., & Smith, J. A. (Eds). (2010). The compassionate instinct: The science of human goodness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Nussbaum, M. (2001). The upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vanden Eynde, M. (2004). Reflections on Martha Nussbaum’s work on compassion from a Buddhist perspective. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 11, 45–67.

Zakrzewski, V. (2012, November 28). An awesome way to make kids less self-absorbed. Greater Good Science Center E-newsletter. Retrieved from


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