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Should Empathy be a College Requirement?

A recent study shows that today’s college students have significantly less empathy than their counterparts of decades past. In a review of 72 studies conducted with almost 15,000 college students between 1979 and 2009, researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that today’s students scored a whopping 40 percent lower on empathy than previous students. The biggest drop occurred after the year 2000.
The study authors point out several possibilities for their findings, including the influence of violent media, a hyper-competitive outlook on life, and the deadening of real-world interactions that occurs from the overuse of social media. Sadly, what this research shows is that the ability to understand other people’s points of view, and care about them, was simply not emphasized or nurtured among many of today’s younger generation.
While this can be disheartening, it also indicates that empathy is not a trait that is determined entirely by our genes. The ability to empathize with our fellow humans is not set in stone. If it has been inadequately developed in some younger people, then this is also evidence that it can be learned.

The “trainability” of empathy has been researched and put into practice by some leading psychologists and educators. Forefront among those has been the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This Center has produced educational programs for school children that inform them about the nature of optimism, hope, and the importance of doing something for others. Students learn techniques for assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making, social problem-solving, and relaxation. These skills can be applied to many contexts of life, including personal relationships, academic and occupational achievement.

So although the research on today’s youth might tempt you to feel pessimistic or even self-righteous, if anything it is a call to redouble our efforts to ensure that our future generations learn the lessons that truly matter, and not just how to compete and out-maneuver others. Importantly, this type of learning and development can occur at any point in life.

Read more about the study here

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