Education as a surrogate for war in the fight for a more compassionate future: Three ways to enhance human capacity for care and kindness

My grandfather was only 19 when the Soviet Union aimed to invade Finland in 1939 and he was sent to the front line to defend the independence of his home country. Of the next four years of his life, most was spent in trenches. What he brought with him from there was not only a strong sense of duty towards serving his home country, but also a deep sense of mutuality and care towards his fellow citizens. Living in the trenches with a mix of people from all sorts of social backgrounds gave him an understanding that we humans are all similar and all deserve to be treated with respect. This was a lesson he remembered well when he later became the CEO of Finland’s largest steel company. He was remembered as a boss who treated the employees fairly and was willing to take care of their well-being way beyond what the legislation would have required.

We need the moral equivalent of war. This was what the American philosopher William James called for in a speech delivered at Stanford University in 1906. War had the power to rally people around a common cause and bring a sense of unity and mutual care. As a pacifist, James aimed to find a way to bring these qualities forth without the necessity of finding an enemy to kill. Instead, his home country went through a period of three severe crises: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. While these brought devastation and millions of deaths, the period afterwards was indeed a period of greater unity: Both economically and politically, United States has never been as committed to mutual welfare than in the decades after the second World War.

Now, we are living through a period of record-breaking economic inequality combined with increasingly polarized political divisions. Nobody wants a war, so the question becomes: How can we develop a sense of unity and a stronger sense of compassion towards our fellow human beings in a time of peace?

John Dewey, the successor of William James as the leading American philosopher in the beginning of the 20th century, already knew the answer: To enact a societal-level change in values or human character, education is the key. School is the place where you can reach a whole generation and shape what they will become.

Unfortunately the agenda of the school is nowadays too often shaped by short-term economic interests. In this narrow-minded agenda, it is often forgot that one of the key tasks of the whole educational system is to grow children into citizens, into adults capable of administrating a democratic state. The democratic crisis that we are currently seeing not only in the US, but in other countries as well, is partially due to this neglect in the curriculum.

In order to build citizens, we need to build their character. This truth was already recognized by Aristotle as well as by the founding fathers of United States. However, since the WWII we have lost touch with this tradition. Being a citizen has reduced to having certain rights, instead of also requiring certain virtues.

Thus, to defend democracy, to build citizens, and to strengthen people’s capacity to experience compassion, three things should be made a mandatory part of curriculum from pre-school to universities (adjusted, of course, to the developmental level of the students):

1) Reading books and engaging with other forms of art

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees that there is nothing better than a good book in building our capacity to put ourselves in others’ shoes. She argues that the value of teaching humanities is due to the fact that through great art — a good book, movie, play and so forth — we learn to see the world from the point of view of others. My protected middle-class childhood couldn’t be further away from the challenges that Baltimore inner city youth must go through. But through watching the award-winning TV series The Wire, I can at least get a glimpse into that life. Even as this understanding is always partial, it expands our moral horizons and grows our capacity for compassion. And compassion for fellow citizens is a necessary requirement for a functioning democracy.

2) Designing meeting spaces across demographics

Given that neighborhoods and other social spaces have become increasingly segregated, we have less exposure to people from different social backgrounds than our own. This is one of the key reasons behind the current ‘empathy gap.’ To counter this development, one should build deliberate meetings between various groups into the curriculum. Our trust and compassion towards others is built in everyday encounters. Accordingly, just the chance to meet with others, work on a common project, engage in sports or arts together, will remind one that beyond the surface differences, we are all humans after all. When stereotypes and prejudices have already being cemented, it is hard to push people to open-heartedly meet each other. Thus, the earlier we are able to make people connect, the better.

3) Exercising mindfulness and meditation practices

Based on an increasing amount of scientific knowledge, we nowadays know that practicing mindfulness meditation is associated with various positive outcomes as regards practitioners’ health and well-being. However, it can also serve as a surprisingly powerful way of cultivating compassion. Mindfulness meditation training can increase participants’ prosocial behavior afterwards, even when delivered by a smartphone app. As regards children and youth, there has been a limited number of high-quality randomized controlled trials (considered the ‘gold standard’ in scientific research) on the topic, but the few existing studies are encouraging: Brief forms of mindfulness practice could improve the children’s social skills and school-related functioning. For example, an 12-week mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum in preschool strengthened children’s social competence and social-emotional development while leading to decreased selfish behavior. The benefits of such programs seem to be especially pronounced for youth with academic or behavioral problems — i.e. those people who most need support.

Beyond education, these same three practices are, of course, effective in any other context as well. As adults, as citizens, as employees and employers, we need to strengthen compassion. And exercising mindfulness, encountering people from different social backgrounds as well as encounters with books and arts can help here.

But ultimately, we need even more.

“My religion is compassion.” This is what James Doty, professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and the founder of Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, claims at the end of his autobiographical book. His life experiences had thought him that what he wants to manifest most through his actions is “a world where people not only did not harm to one another but reached out to help one another.” And he is not alone. Charter for compassion was drafted in 2009 and has been signed by over 2 million people, including such well-known names as archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, H.H. Dalai Lama and Mohammad Ali. The charter notes how “compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions” and calls us to “restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion.” Regular religious practice — be it a prayer, a mass or anything else — is a powerful way to remind us about key values and strengthen the influence of the better angels of our nature.

Thus, what is ultimately needed is to make compassion into a religion. People would be better of if they were part of a community that would help them to cultivate their capacity for compassion. Human kind would be better of if most of us would be part of such communities. Building such communities and practices — both within existing religions and outside of them — thus holds the potential to help each of us better realize the inherent potential for compassion that we carry as part of our human nature. Building such future is not only necessary but (morally equivalent to) a battle worth fighting for.

This post was inspired by the speeches I heard and the conversations I had at the Compassion in the Age of Disruption -summit at the University of Edinburgh I attended as one of the speakers on Dec 1st.

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