Embracing Empathy Education

Embracing Empathy Education

There’s an argument afoot. An argument favoring a liberal arts education. Especially in this age of automation — the Future of Work.

Here’s the argument in a nutshell — as we get closer to automated automation, where computers and robots program themselves, there will be a greater need for human context thinking. The best training for thinking about humans, the argument goes, is a liberal arts education. An education heavy on arts, humanities, and ethical theories.

Having acquired a liberal arts degree over 25 years ago, I’m intrigued by the argument. But, I’m not so certain that I’m buying it. Not completely. Not for this reason, at its current price tag.

I’m not doubting in the well-roundedness of a liberal arts education. Nor am I completely questioning its overall value. I’ve achieved a lot with my degree. I think it’s served me well. But, ultimately, when people talk about needing more human context thinking, they’re not talking about art history, or comparative literature. What they’re really talking about is empathy.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at the ongoing discussion about bias in algorithms. Perhaps you’ve seen headlines and articles about how today’s algorithms, which are built on yesterday’s data, are biased. Not because the algorithm, in and of itself, is biased. But because the data that’s fed to the algorithm contains bias — causing a biased result. 

Algorithmic bias has been seen in software used in criminal sentencing and in corporate hiring. Two processes that significantly impact the lives of the humans interacting with the algorithm. 

How is this problem solved? Rarely is it suggested that automated decision making be abandoned. That humans be hired to replace the automation. Rather, what’s suggested is that the software development process be infused with people trained to think about humans, aka liberal arts graduates.

And, that’s where I see the argument falling apart.

Addressing bias in algorithms does not require a background in philosophy or humanities. It requires empathy.

Before anyone can even address the bias in the algorithm, somebody has to first see the bias. Has to identify it. And, identifying bias is not a skill one acquires with a post-secondary education. Identifying and understanding bias starts with empathy.

I spent years defending criminals in court. Many of my clients intrinsically knew when they were on the receiving end of bias. I may not have seen it at first. But, once explained to me, from their perspective, it became obvious. Hard to ignore.

But, it only became obvious to me because of my own empathy. Not because I had studied Shakespeare and Whitman. It was because I had learned, with each new client, to be more empathetic. More willing to see, hear, and understand my clients’ experiences from their perspective, not mine. 

The same is true when I was a human resources manager at a state agency. Agency employees knew when a hiring process was contaminated with bias. It was as obvious to them as it had been to my former clients. But, to be willing to find solutions, it took my empathy, not my bachelor’s degree or even my law degree. 

Sure, my education helped me communicate better. To the judge or the HR team. And, my education helped me write better briefs and design less biased hiring processes. But, without empathy, these skills would have been useless. I wouldn’t have even seen the bias I was trying to address.

Today’s call for more human context thinking is really a call for an ability to understand what our fellow humans are experiencing. A liberal arts education can provide many opportunities to build on that ability. But, the actual ability to see and hear other humans. To understand their experiences. Well, that’s rooted in empathy. And, today, empathy is a skill many primary and secondary schools are teaching students. These kids won’t need college to learn empathy.

Sure, when I was in college, I developed empathy for Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Chopin’s Edna in The Awakening. But, the discussions we had about those books were not what helped me craft my best arguments in court.

My greatest influence, on my very best work, were my clients. The clients whose lives were much different from mine. It was a willingness to listen, to clarify, to seek real understanding. That’s what made the difference. That’s what built my empathy.

So, as we help our kids prepare for the Future of Work, we should embrace their empathy education. We should see it as a foundation. A foundation that will support them in whatever career or educational path they choose. 

A four-year degree may be good for many things. It may even be a requirement to pursue a chosen profession. But, it does not take a four-year degree to learn how to think about humans. That just takes empathy. 

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