The Bridge to Civility: Empathy, Ethics and Service

Developing a social consciousness in the young means engaging them in meaningful activity by SHELDON H. BERMAN

In 1979, social psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner lamented that it had become possible "for a person 18 years of age to graduate from high school without ever having had to do a piece of work on which somebody else truly depended ... without ever having cared for, or even held, a baby; without ever having looked after someone who was old, ill or lonely; or without ever having comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help." Bronfenbrenner concluded, "No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings."


Without a sense of community and family, many young people lose the connectedness that fosters these sensitivities, motivations and skills. The result for these youths is incivility and apathy as well as a lack of confidence that they can make a difference to others and to the world as a whole.

Young people's disengagement with the social and political world has become more serious over the past 30 years. In January 1998, the Higher Education Research Institute reported that the nation's college freshman were less connected to politics than any entering class in the 32-year history of the study.

According to the study, this year's college freshmen are less likely to believe that "keeping up to date with political affairs," "becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment" and "helping to promote racial understanding" are important life goals. They have less desire than previous freshmen classes to influence the political structure, participate in a community action program, influence social values or even discuss politics.

These findings are alarming because our democratic culture and social wellbeing depend on the renewing energy of young people who have the sensitivities and vision to help create a better world. Indeed, the very fabric of our national community depends on the degree to which we care about and treat each other with respect and civility.

Nurturing a democratic culture and a civil society was the central mission of public education at its inception. Although we often pay lip service to this goal today, we have not invested the necessary energy, thoughtfulness or financial support to ensure its effective implementation. We have created no equivalent to the National Science Foundation to support basic research into the development of social consciousness among young people or the development of exemplary curriculum materials.

Schools have tended to relegate these vital issues to the social studies curriculum where democratic participation is generally taught through lecture and text rather than by engaging young people in actively contributing to the wellbeing of others and society.

Social Consciousness
Social understanding and social responsibility build on children's desire to understand and feel effective in the social world, to initiate and maintain connection with others and to reach out to those in distress.

Research on the social development of children has revealed that their awareness of the social and political world emerges far earlier and their social and moral sensibilities are far more advanced than we previously thought. This research indicates that pro-social behavior is stimulated not so much by the traditional constructs of efficacy and locus of control but by much deeper sources-one's sense of self and one's morality, one's sense of connectedness to others and the sense of meaning that comes from contributing to something larger than oneself.

Young people are continually negotiating a sense of meaning, place and commitment. In often subtle ways they ask: Do I have a meaningful place in the social and political world? Are there values that I can make a commitment to and people I can stand with? Am I capable of contributing something useful to others that they will welcome and appreciate? Do I have the courage to act without guarantees of success?

Thus, social consciousness and social responsibility are not behaviors we need to instill in young people, but rather behaviors we need to recognize emerging in them. Contrary to the stereotype of them as egocentric, children care about the welfare of others and about issues of personal and social fairness. To promote civility, nurture character and develop civic commitment in young people requires that we reconnect them with their community, help them understand and appreciate others and show them that they can make a difference.

To teach these lessons, we must make the issues of care, connection and civic action part of the core curriculum and school culture. We must look thoughtfully at the ways young people see society operating and help them develop a larger sense of meaning for their lives. And we must apply what we know about learning in general-that we learn best by doing rather than by being told-to civil and civic education.

For the past five years, the Hudson, Mass., Public Schools has pursued the teaching of civility, character and social responsibility through instructional strategies focused on the themes of empathy, ethics and service. We have embedded these themes into the fabric of each chitd's school experience from kindergarten through 12th grade. Though we have not completed our journey, we have taken a sufficient step forward that our efforts may help others trying to foster social responsibility among young people.

A Focus on Empathy
Often educators react to children's incivility or challenging behavior by tightening the school's behavior codes. Although this might be a small part of the solution, young people's problematic behavior is often a sign to adults that youngsters do not know how to act with compassion, empathy and sensitivity to the needs of others or in response to conflict. The most productive instructional strategy for developing social responsibility, therefore, is to teach young people skills in empathy.

Empathy, in fact, may be an innate human attribute that is either nurtured or inhibited by a child's environment. Martin Hoffman, Judith Dunn and other researchers have noted signs of empathy during infancy. This attribute can be developed by helping children become sensitive observers of others' feelings and helping them to understand the causes of those feelings.

Studying the development of empathy and moral behavior, Norma Haan and her colleagues, in their book On Moral Grounds: The Search for Practical Morality, found that children could think in profoundly empathic and moral terms, but their behavior did not reflect this ability because they lacked skill in handling moral conflict. Thus, empathy is best taught by giving students training and practice in perspective taking, conflict resolution and assertiveness--the skills that enable them to maintain clarity in conflictual and stressful situations.

Whether through role playing, analysis of children's literature or dealing with actual classroom situations, we can help young children understand and appreciate how others may feel and experience a situation differently.

Many curriculum materials and programs are available in this area. Hudson has been using an empathy development and anger management program produced by the Committee for Children entitled Second Step, along with conflict-resolution materials from Educators for Social Responsibility. Second Step begins in kindergarten and involves students in role plays and discussions that help them identify others' feelings and practice ways of appropriately responding. The program includes a parent component as well so that these skills can be supported at home.

A recent study of Second Step, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that it decreased physical and verbal aggression and increased pro-social behavior. These and other programs give students direct instruction in basic social and emotional skills and involve the whole school in creating a caring community that models respectful and empathetic behavior. (See resource list.) Thus, through a school's curriculum and culture, students can become sensitive to and considerate of the feelings and needs of others while at the same time learning ways to constructively deal with differences.

A Focus on Ethics
Young people also must find a moral center in themselves and learn how to manage moral conflicts. The internalization and ownership of ethical principles develops through a non-coercive, open-minded approach that invites discussion, exchange, dissent and understanding rather than demanding agreement and adherence.

Research by the late Lawrence Kohlberg and psychologist Carol Gilligan, both of Harvard, among others, has shown that ethical discussion can enhance moral reasoning and nurture such ethical principles as justice and caring. Placing young people in situations where they must work with real moral dilemmas in a democratic community also nurtures moral action.

Consideration of ethics is an area that becomes contentious for schools, with some individuals wishing to promote particular religious principles within the curriculum and others advocating for values neutrality. However, the character education movement and the Character Education Partnership, in particular, have helped adults see that we can come to agreement on such collectively held values as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice, fairness, caring and citizenship. Affirming these values while engaging students in dialogue about moral issues provides an opportunity for schools to nurture moral and pro-social behavior.

Good curricula in the area of ethical development are harder to find than in the area of empathy. Our school district has selected material from an elementary literature program developed by the Developmental Studies Center in which students read good literature that portrays pro-social themes. In addition, we have created a core 9th-grade English-social studies-civics course based on the essential question: "What is a just society?" A central part of this course is the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum.

This 9th-grade curriculum engages students in the study of the roots of two 20th century genocides, the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, and confronts them with the human potential for passivity, complicity and destructiveness by asking how genocide can become state policy. The curriculum raises significant ethical questions and sensitizes students to injustice, inhumanity, suffering and the abuse of power.

The course is academically challenging and helps complicate students' thinking so they learn not to accept simple answers to complex problems. In the process of studying both a historic period and the personal and social forces that produce genocide, students confront their own potential for passivity and complicity, their own prejudices and intolerances and their own moral commitments. The curriculum enhances students' perspective-taking and social reasoning abilities and provides them with a greater sense of moral responsibility and commitment to making a difference.

A Focus on Service
Finally, to truly encourage civility and civic responsibility we must get young people involved in taking action that makes a difference to others. They need to be an active part of the solution rather than passive observers. The understandings they develop through reflection need to be translated into action either through community service opportunities or direct social or political participation.

The research shows that young people who are active early in life, whether in school or the larger community, are more likely to be active as adults. Similarly, students who are given greater responsibility often develop a greater sense of responsibility. We tend to treat young people as "citizens in preparation" rather than asking them to use their citizenship skills by becoming active members of the community.

The Hudson Public Schools has made a strong commitment to integrating community service learning into our curriculum for all students. We are creating a consistent, system-wide approach so that an ethic of service and an ethic of care is sustained from kindergarten to graduation. In 1996-97, 80 percent of our students were involved in service learning. Our goal is to provide every student with such experiences marked by continuity, depth and meaningfulness.

Teachers at each grade level develop their own initiatives. For example, kindergartners are taking part this year in a handicapped awareness program that raises funds for the March of Dimes, a student-run recycling program tied to a environmental studies science unit and a holiday toy drive linked to a social studies unit on community. Our 4th graders are involved in an environmental field studies program to protect wetlands and other natural areas near our school. And our 9th-grade English and social studies teachers are asking students to find ways they can help create a just society through a service-learning experience. Through a collaborative of 10 school districts, we also are developing a student leadership program that provides our middle and high school students with such leadership training experiences as student leadership conferences, summer institutes and courses.

A committee of teachers and administrators guides all our efforts and has created community service learning reference and resource kits for each school library, teacher guidelines for projects, a list of 100 good ideas and a list of local organizations.

To highlight the importance of service learning in the district, the school board sets aside one of its meetings for a service learning exposition in which all our projects are displayed and parents and the community are invited to learn about our students' efforts. In addition, special Superintendent's Awards for Service are awarded to students at each school. To highlight their importance, these awards are presented to middle and high school recipients at the Hudson High School graduation.

Community service learning, however, is more than older children tutoring younger children and more than students raising money for a food pantry or entertaining the elderly at a retirement home during the holiday season. True service learning helps students make the connections between what they are studying in class and real-world issues. It engages students in action and reflection on important community, social, political and environmental issues. And it requires educators to think of students not as future citizens but as active members of their community.

Encouraging trends are emerging nationally in the area of service learning. Many states and school districts have pursued initiatives with the support of the Corporation for National Service. Most recently, the Education Commission of the States has formed a K-12 Compact for Learning and Citizenship involving school superintendents and chief state school officers in an effort to provide national leadership in the areas of community service learning and the use of community volunteers in the schools. By providing a voice for school leaders to advocate for effective programs, the compact could significantly advance the quality and acceptance of service learning as a vehicle for the development of civility, character and responsibility.

A Commitment to Community
Human beings often latch onto simple answers to complex questions. The path to teaching civility and character is strewn with curricula that provide students our own pleadings for them to he good. But if we are truly concerned with helping young people become good individuals and citizens, we must focus on empathy, ethics and service to provide students with the skills and experiences that give meaning to the concept of civility.

At a time when some members of the public contend that schools are for nothing more than instruction in basic skills, it is bold to make the commitment that Hudson has to teaching social and emotional skills. We have not neglected making improvements in our academic program as we believe that students benefit both academically and socially from an education that integrates challenging academics with a commitment to nurturing a caring and civil community.

Hudson's focus on empathy, ethics and service helps young people experience the sense of community that ties us together. Through this experience young people begin to understand the meaning of the common good, appreciate that their actions have consequences for others and the community at large and develop a sense of relatedness to and responsibility for the larger human community. Thus, empathy, ethics and service are the bridge to civility that enriches us all.

Sheldon Berman is superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools, 155 Apsley St., Hudson, Mass. 01749. E-mail: shelley@concord.org. He is past president of Educators for Social Responsibility and author of Children's Social Consciousness, published in 1997 by SUNY Press.