Here is the final draft of the third paper I had to write for this course:
Elliot Coulombe Woznica
English Composition 110
21 November 2021
Balancing Empathetic Learning and Critical Thinking
When it comes to higher education, many of us agree that an emphasis should be placed on strict, academic learning. Whether it’s medicine, science, business, or any other generally accepted major, we are usually quick to write college off as a place to look into these specific fields of study. As a first-year college student myself, though, it has quickly become evident that college involves more than just academic study. In part, college is also a place where students can partake in worldly experiences and encounters that may aid in more general skills such as communication and empathetic reasoning. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt—two esteemed social scientists—write about this in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind”. In this article, though, the two express concern regarding the state of college campuses in today’s day and age. Rather than encourage these worldly experiences, colleges and educational boards now seem to inhibit thought provoking (and what are now considered to be offensive) interactions. Moreover, it seems these same institutions are more than willing to prevent discussion—a key part of social learning—for the sake of emotional well-being. Although authors like Yo Yo Ma have argued for the importance of empathetic awareness and the understanding of the individual, Lukianoff and Haidt make an agreeable point in noting that these modern developments are counterproductive to critical thinking and the intellectual progression of college students. My own belief is in accordance with Lukianoff and Haidt: Colleges today do impair social learning and critical thinking for the sake of emotional well-being. However, to truly educate college students, I believe there does need to be a certain level of empathetic understanding and education incorporated into college curriculums.
One of the major downfalls of an overly-empathetic college experience is the lack of critical thinking and understanding that accompanies blind emotional well-being. This isn’t to say emotional well-being and critical thinking never go hand in hand; critical thoughts put into practice often preserve safety and well-being. It is to say, though, that the new norm has become eliminating all emotionally distressing and otherwise challenging thoughts for the sake of emotional security and comfort. This is a dangerous trend. To demonstrate this, Lukianoff and Haidt use the hyperbolic example of a law student who refuses to learn rape law due to the distressing nature of the material. Certainly this student’s emotional well-being is important, but their sensitivity towards the subject cannot be an excuse for the major gap in their education that this exception demands. If the majority of students who find rape law offensive refuse to learn about it, what happens when the next rape victim requires a lawyer? Not only will the students be emotionally distressed, the victim will be left without proper help. Herein lies the issue. Exceptions made for students with emotional sensitivities do more harm than good. In allowing such students a major emotional buttress, colleges only deprive them of the callusing they need to assimilate into a world that will refuse to change for them. “Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control” (Lukianoff and Haidt 273). Through writing this, Lukianoff and Haidt agree that colleges owe students exposure, not protection. This can only be done when colleges don’t overly empathize with students. This is not the only instance in which too much empathy can harm students, though.
An abundance of empathetic fulfillment can also damage conversation and leave students with yet another disadvantage in the real world. A good example of this is “cancel culture”. As “cancel culture” has risen throughout the past decade, more and more students have become afraid to speak out on their inner beliefs. This can be damaging for a multitude of reasons, and it just so happens that Lukianoff and Haidt comment on this concept as well. The two note that this rise in sensitivity and its encouragement throughout college campuses “is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse” (Lukianoff and Haidt 263). This passage attests to the issue of inhibited discussion, and it even brings attention to the fact that otherwise innocent debate can now be deemed “insensitive” and “aggressive”. Why is this an issue, though? Upon first glance, it may seem as though this development is for the best. Why should we allow insensitive and aggressive commentary when it only serves to harm others’ emotional well-being? The answer is complex, but it’s important nonetheless. To put it plainly, discussion serves as the main catalyst for growth within the human race. As humans, we all host a multitude of unique and complex experiences. With these experiences also come distinct opinions and philosophies that serve as the basis for how we operate throughout life. Society functions via the cooperation of the human race, though, not through the prosperity of the individual. If we all function solely on our own beliefs, conflict will arise and solutions will not. Discussion therefore allows us to integrate our own beliefs with the beliefs of others to produce complex and pragmatic solutions. In other words, discussion is a big component in critical thinking. If discussion is inhibited, it’s safe to say this process will come to a halt. This is the other, larger implication of an overly empathetic learning environment. If we are to limit discussion to only agreeable, happy conversation points, we will no longer progress as a society. This is alarming, and it once again speaks to why colleges cannot foster overly empathetic and coddled learning environments. Should colleges then emphasise critical thinking at the cost of emotional well-being?
Critical thinking is, perhaps, the most crucial aspect of a “successful” educational experience. With that being said, I still believe a balance between critical thinking and a more empathetic “agreeableness” is key. In many ways, this is exactly what Yo Yo Ma writes about in his essay “Necessary Edges: Arts, Empathy, and Education”. Throughout this essay, Ma describes the importance of integrating the performing arts into a generally STEM dominated college atmosphere. Ma notes that true success only manifests “when science and the arts, critical and empathetic reasoning, are linked to the mainstream” (280). This idea narrows in on the notion that a balance between critical thinking and empathetic reasoning is key. With that being said, empathy does have a place in the educational environment. Empathy is important because it provides us with a realistic understanding of how and why critical thinking is valued in the first place. We all want objective, scientific advancement for the sake of improving the human race. Empathy is the lense that allows us to understand what “improving” means, though. Advancement isn’t solely technological, it’s also societal, cultural, and oftentimes hugely wrapped up in issues most would consider to be empathetic (regarding emotional well-being and satisfaction). As such, empathetic reasoning along with societal cues of respect, communication, and understanding should definitely be implemented into college learning environments. What, then, is the solution to this college identity crisis?
In my own opinion, colleges should strive to encourage productive discussion and debate by teaching students how to remain polite and respectful while communicating. Discussion is a hugely important part in the development of any successful society. Offensive commentary and conflict is not. By teaching students how to communicate effectively and respectfully, colleges may be able to prevent particular students from “canceling” someone for “insensitive” or “aggressive” commentary that may otherwise be constructive given a different framing. Moreover, this implementation will grant students insight into how others feel—empathetic reasoning—while also allowing students to formulate complex and critical thoughts of their own. On top of this, I believe colleges owe students a strict, no-exception policy on various curriculums that some may deem sensitive and even offensive. If certain people find their chosen fields of study offensive and unsettling, it’s up to the individual to deduce that that field of study may not be for them. With these implementations, I believe the problems of overly-empathetic college campuses and overly-callused and insensitive students can be fixed. By highlighting both empathetic reasoning and critical thinking, a balance can be made that provides students with the best possible learning outcomes.
This paper was written after the class explored an article by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff titled “The Coddling of the American Mind”. In this article, the two authors suggest that American college campuses have started to over-coddle student in a way that harms both critical thinking and productive discussion. Although many would agree that colleges are starting to prioritize the emotional well-being of their students over uncomfortable yet important discussion, many would also argue that hate speech and otherwise “triggering” topics should be inhibited in places of education and safety (such as college campuses). Finding a balance between these two contrasting ideologies is something I strived to establish throughout this paper.
I chose this paper for my significant writing project because I believe it demonstrates my ability to incorporate my own ideas with those of others proficiently and effectively. Clearness and conciseness in this field is something I’ve always struggled with, so I’m particularly proud of my execution in this paper. Take, for example, paragraph 3. In my own opinion, this paragraph manages to take a brief passage from Lukianoff and Haidt on the subject of “discussion” and expand upon it very effectively using my own beliefs on why discussion is important in society. Similarly, my final conclusion also manages to take the ideas discussed throughput the paper and tie them all together with concise language.
On top of all this, I also think the overall structure and mechanics of this paper deserve praise. The paragraph organization makes sense, and the themes I explore flow into one another seamlessly. On top of this, the quotes I chose to incorporate into this paper align well with my argument and add to the overall efficacy of my writing.
All in all, I’m extremely proud of this paper. This, along with the aforementioned qualities, explains why this writing project is significant to me.