Empathy, Character Education, and the Arts

This week I cam across two articles that got me thinking about what exactly the arts teach to students.

The first article was from the grandfather of teaching artistry, Eric Booth. His essay “Prescription for Health: Empathetic Entry Into the Stories of Others” claims the arts to be a source of ‘cultural nutrition’ for our society, inspiring empathy, connectedness, and community. He concludes, too, that teaching artists are critical in this landscape:

“Teaching artists have the creative gift of empathy. They know, intimately and articulately, what it is like for those unfamiliar with the arts to enter artistic experiences. They are the tour guides of artistic process. They design their work in an inventive crucible of remembering what it is like to experience things for the first time and knowing deeply the ways inside the arts. They are natives in the foreign land (for a large majority) of artistic practice, and have developed the skills of customized guided tours that enable almost anyone to take action because they feel they belong. Their work has power because it is authentic; it is a creative act to design such learning journeys, and they bring an artist’s flair and an expert’s true joy. To participate in a teaching artist’s entry into the work of art is to be the artist you are, even if only in a small way. To be the artist you are is to be an active participant in a healthier life, healthier family, healthier culture.”

The second article is A Call to All Social-Emotional Learning Leaders from Maurice Elias. His point is simple: there’s a lot of talk around social-emotional learning and youth development, but it’s a bit like the Tower of Babel. There’s overlap, differing terminology, and no unifying statement of what our goals as educators are. I’m all for this discussion, but it raises some hairy questions for me:

  • If educators want a discussion around social-emotional learning / character education / youth development / [fill in the blank], who are they going to bring into this discussion? Only teachers and policymakers, or also students, parents, and teaching artists?
  • Would the creation of a shared definition and platform in fact exclude certain nuances from this dialogue?
  • How would such a dialogue (and the manifesto that may result from it) impact different approaches to this work?
  • Finally, what claim do the arts have in this process?

My bias is of course to the last question. There’s tons of evidence citing how students who participate in school and community arts programs develop more of the “noncognitive skills” that comprise the social-emtional learning curricula. There’s even books on using readers theatre for character education, and how drama can contribute to a citizenship curriculum. So I’m left wondering if the most practical solution is not to get “leaders of the social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education fields to jump in the sandbox together and create a set of common guidelines” but instead to explore commonalities by seeing the overlap in how it is done. It’s no surprise to teaching artists that games and role-plays are a part of these curricula; it’s those very strategies and more that lend the arts part of their learning benefit.

Whatever we call it, the point is to develop our young people into better, more compassionate citizens — learners in the most holistic sense. If we should declare anything, I’m of the opinion that we put forth guidelines for how to do it, not what it is. We all know what it is, we just name it differently. If we can agree on guidelines for doing it though, then maybe Eric Booth’s vision (and mine) for a richer, more creative culture won’t seem so out-of-reach.

What are your thoughts? Do you as a teaching artist share these kinds of goals? How might the kind of shared platform Elias describes be beneficial to your practice?

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