Habits of Empathy
Gretchen Hurtt

In her talk with students during our Women’s Network event in November, journalist Ruby Cramer ’08 described “taking an empathetic posture” toward the people and events she writes about. In what was, to me, one of the most moving parts of the evening, Ruby described what it was like to hear the stories of workers who had been laid off at a plant in the Midwest. For journalists like Ruby, open-minded listening is essential; her writing is grounded in both thorough research and empathy.
 
At St. Andrew’s, taking an empathetic posture is an intellectual habit we practice daily in our classrooms. Far from being innate, empathy takes mental stretching, curiosity, and discipline. As an English teacher, I love how literature challenges students to deeply understand characters as diverse as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Jesmyn Ward’s Esch. We gain insights by closely reading and delving into these characters’ complex, contradictory layers—and by imagining the characters’ unique points of view. Students also practice empathy in their work on major assessments; in recent paper exhibitions on The Remains of the Day, English 4 students were challenged to recognize what their peer writer should think more about, then pose questions to expand their partner’s thinking. Exhibitions require intensive thought; they must be probing yet grounded in intellectual generosity and respect.
 
Habits of empathy are also developed in moments like a recent student-led Chapel service, entitled “There’s More to Me Than What You See.” During the service, student singers, speakers and dancers invited us to shed our preconceptions and better understand the many dimensions of our community members. In another example, when my advisory group took dinner to Andrew’s Place, a transitional housing shelter for homeless men in Wilmington, I was inspired by my advisees’ ability to connect, listen and engage with residents there, even when taking in their very different, sometimes difficult, personal stories and experiences.
 
Stay open, our School culture tells us, to a roommate whose cultural practices differ from ours, or to a teacher who challenges us to think in a new way. Listen. See if you can imagine the perspectives of the people around you. I’d argue that the insights we gain as scholars would not be fully possible without the empathy we build together through Chapels, service, dorms, and meals. In these moments, we witness the interplay of academics and community that defines a St. Andrew’s education.
 

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