Archive: December, 2010

Book Review: The Age of Empathy

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of empathy. Maybe it’s the holiday season. Maybe it’s something deeper.

I attended a talk by Margret Atwood at the Parkland conference and she referred to Frans De Waal’s latest book “The Age of Empathy” Using the Edmonton Public Library’s new iPhone app, I immediately put this book on hold. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the app, it’s a pretty neat tool for smartphones to find new titles, place holds, and feed your literary appetite.

Pulling from his lifelong work as a primatologist, De Waal’s latest book explores “nature’s lessons for a kinder society.” I would recommend this read for it’s fascinating anecdotes, funny stories, and thought-provoking social insights.

From apes to house cats to dolphins, De Waal pulls from a vast variety of biological and psychological research to argue the case for a move towards enlightened self-interest.

A couple of passages that resonated with me:

“Humans are bipolar apes. We have something of the gentle,sexy bonobo, which we may like to emulate, but not too much; otherwise the world might turn into one giant hippie fest of flower power and free love. Happy we might be, but productive perhaps not. And our species also has something of the brutal, domineering chimpanzee, a side we maywish to suppress, but not completely, because how else would we conquer new frontiers and defend our borders? One could argue that there would be no problem if all of humanity turned peaceful at the same time, but no population is stable unless it’s immune to invasions by mutants. I’d still worry about that one lunatic who gathers an army and exploits the soft spots of the rest.

So, strange as it may sound, I’d be reluctant to radically change the human condition. But if I could change one thing, it would be to expand the range of fellow feeling. The greatest problem today, with so many different groups rubbing shoulders on a crowded planet, is excessive loyalty to one’s own nation, group, or religion. Humans are capable of deep disdain for anyone who looks different or thinks another way, even between neighbouring groups with almost identical DNA, such as the Israelis and Palestinians. Nations think they are superior to their neighbors, and religions think they own the truth. When push comes to shove, they are ready to thward or even eliminate oneanother. In recent years, we have seen two huge office towers brought down by airplanes deliberately flown into them as well as massive bombing raids on the capital of a nation, and on both occasions the deaths of thousands of innocents was celebrated as a triumph of good over evil. The lives of strangers are often considered worthless. Asked why he never talked about the number of civilians killed in the Iraq War, U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld answered: “Well, we don’t do body counts on other people.”

Empathy for “other people is the one commodity the world is lacking more than oil. It would be great if we could create at least a modicum of it. How this might change things was hinted at when, in 2004, Israeli justice minister osef Lapid was touched by images of a Palestinian woman on the evening news. “When I saw a picture on the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under some floor tiles for her medicines, I did think, ‘What would I say if it were my grandmother?’” Even though Lapid’s sentiments infuriated the nation’s hard-liners, the incident showed what happens when empathy expands. In a brief moment of humanity, the minister had drawn Palestinians into his ciricle of concern.

If I were God, I’d work on the reach of Empathy. (De Wall, The Age of Empathy 203-204)

When you hear so many assumptions about human nature, his book challenges us to carefully choose the narative that we wish for species.

“A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that make life worthwhile. This is why surveys measure the greatest happiness not in the wealthiest nations but rather in those with the highest levels of trust among citizens. Conversely, the trust-starved climate of modern business spells trouble and has recently made many people deeply unhappy by wiping out their savings. In 2008, the world’s financial system collapsed under the weight of predatory lending, reporting of nonexistent profits, pyramid schemes, and reckless betting with other people’s money.

It’s not as if we’re asking our species to do anything foreign to it by building on the old herd instinct that has kept animal societies together for millions of years. And her I don’t mean that we should blindly follow one another, but that we have to stick together: We can’t just scatter in all directions. Every individual is connected to something larger than itself. Those who like to depict this connection as contrived, as not part of human biology, don’t have the latest behavioral and neurological data on their side. The connection is deeply felt and, as Mandeville had to admit, no society can do without it.

First of all, there are the occasions where others need aid and we have a chance to offer it in the form of food banks, disaster relief, elderly care, summer camps for poor children, and so on. Measured by volunteer community services, Western societies seem to be in great shape indeed, and have plenty of compassion to go around. But the second area where solidarity counts is the common good, which includes health care, education, infrastructure, transportation, national defense, protection against nature, and so on. Here the role of empathy is more indirect because no one would want to see such vital pillars of society depend purely on the warm glow of kindness.

The firmest support for the common good comes from enlightened self-interest: the realization that we’re all better off if we work together. If we don’t benefit from our contributions now, then at least potentially we will in the future, and if not personally, than at least potentially we will in the future, and if not personally, than at least via improved conditions around us. Since empathy binds individuals together and gives each a stake in the welfare of others, it bridges the world of direct “what’s in it for me?” benefits and collective benefits, which take a bit more reflection to grasp.  Empathy has the power to open our eyes to the latter by attaching emotional value to them.” (223)

The three district priorities are Literacy, Numeracy, and Citizenship. As we go forward setting our next 3 year list of district priorities, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about what role ideas like creativity, empathy, wellness or entrepreneurship could play in our upcoming district priorities.

A very thought-provoking read.

Why I voted for the moratorium…

Why I voted in favor of a two-year moratorium on school closures.

Tuesday evening, the Edmonton Public School Board voted 7-2 on the motion for a renewable moratorium on two year school closure.

I have received many thought-provoking letters from residents indicating their support or their concerns with the motion. Some believed that it reduced the board’s flexibility and opportunity to make decisions. Others thought that the moratorium might not be long enough. There are still many unanswered questions from residents about why we are closing schools, why we are opening so many new schools, why only certain sectors were targeted and if the district has a comprehensive future plan for space needs.

If we did not pass the moratorium yesterday, we could be facing more closure recommendations as soon as next month.

As a district, we are just starting the tri-level discussions to move forward and we have an unprecedented opportunity to work with our partners in the Province, the City, and with Edmonton Catholic. Mayor Mandel and the city are interested in working together and a moratorium shows that we will be partners in good faith in this process as opposed to closing schools with one hand while trying to revitalize neighbourhoods with the other.

We also have began the process of allowing our community schools equal support (circa Trustee Huff’s motion last year to work towards equal support for community schools), reviewing our central organization and elements of site-based decision making, and I feel it would not be prudent to move ahead at this time until we have our ducks in a row.

So what does a two-year renewable moratorium on school closures do?

It directs the EPSB Board and administration to work together on creative solutions instead of school closures and examine the complete costs of school closures. It gives clarity of direction from our board that this is the direction that we would like to move and that closing 19 schools in 10 years requires us to pause and revisit our needs.

From conversations with my colleagues I know our board isn’t afraid of making tough decisions, but we just want to make sure that they are tough, but fully-informed decisions.

The data surrounding the performance or quality of education for students who attend small schools is inconclusive. The cost savings accrued to the district from closing a school are unclear, if there are any. With an absence of clear motive and justification, why continue to aggressively close schools that we the taxpayers have built, paid for, and been using for years?  Is it because space is being inappropriately measured, often failing to allocate for before and after school care, libraries, computer rooms, etc.?   If schools have to close, where, and how many of them? By my rough estimate we would need to close almost half of the schools in the city to balance our plant operations deficit. Or is it because we lack the proper operational funding from the proper places to provide the space and services required for learning?

Many schools I have spoken to have said that they could have dramatically higher enrollment if we cut the red tape surrounding the limits on these small schools. Many families told me that the one choice our district undervalues is the choice of the community school, and the very valid reasons that families select it. It gives our district a chance to review many of our spaces and work with community groups and other levels of government to take into account the needs of our communities and create the best possible educational outcomes for every student.

We need to make sure that we are being fair and consistent with everyone, especially with the outcome of a decision is as serious as a school closure. This is an infinitely more complicated issue that cannot be simplified to a false dichotomy of “Buildings or kids.”

The elephant in the room here is that we are running two public education systems with competing infrastructure needs, competing for the same students. (Both Catholic and non-Catholic students attend both Separate and Public schools.) Our tri-level discussions give us an opportunity to look for collaborative opportunities with the Separate system.

When given a problem, it is crucial that we make absolutely clear that we are asking the right questions. A moratorium gives us time to make sure we are seeking the right answers to the real problem.

As Trustee Christopher “CKLS” Spencer quoted:

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Richard Buckminster Fuller (US engineer and architect, 1895-1983 )