Make It So

From Students to Citizens

After a week of racist and anti-Semitic violence in Kentucky and Pittsburgh, we were grateful for President Thrasher’s response. “At times like these,” he concluded, “we are reminded of our strength as an institution of higher learning. No matter what our differences — whether race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity — Florida State is a welcoming place for all, and we share the values of acceptance, respect, and civility.”

We take this as both an assurance and a directive. Our university is strong and inclusive when we make it so. Students don’t come to us merely to learn content, but to grow into the adults they need to be, for the future they face. As their faculty, we’re stewards of their development as well as their learning. In addition to helping them build new knowledge and skills, we can help them become more informed, empowered citizens and engaged community members.

Our students need to be critical consumers of information. We must help them learn how to search for and evaluate sources of evidence, and use accurate information to think critically about power, rhetoric, conflicts, and events. We can also help them learn how to think deeply about our culture; and to think historically, asking questions like, what leads up to violence happening? What patterns do we see over time? How should we interpret events? And what can we do to make change?

Those are challenging, worthy goals for our students; perhaps even more important are our goals of helping them to develop into the ethical and empathic people with whom we would like to share our world.

As they move toward adulthood, our students are wrestling with the moral questions we all face: How can we be good people in these times? What does that mean to us? Our classes can ask students to grapple with tough questions so that they are better prepared to make ethical decisions, to accept responsibility for how their actions affect the world beyond themselves, and to practice empathy.

Empathy makes us curious about the experiences of others; it helps us to suspend judgment. It emboldens us to care. This means it’s a powerful motivator—the sort of motivator that can nudge students to do the intellectual stretching that is essential to the college experience. But empathy is a skill, not an attribute, so it needs frequent practice. This work isn’t exclusive to social work or service-learning classes: we can all benefit from it, whether we’re teaching ecology, law, or urban planning. Understanding what others may think or feel is a skill that will serve our students well in any future career.

Students can practice empathy in many ways. Narrative allows us to inhabit a new point of view, so reading or watching stories can be transformative, especially if you ask students to reflect on the experience. Students can practice active listening, write biographies, or play simulation games. You can reframe existing questions and prompts to encourage empathetic thinking; ask students to reflect on their assumptions about individuals or groups, before or after reading assignments or videos; or highlight unfamiliar cultures and traditions in the examples you provide.

When we ask students to listen to each other, interview neighbors or strangers, work with community members, or any of the myriad tasks that help them to engage in new ways, they learn far more than content. They develop a sense of efficacy that motivates them to work harder. They become better students, and more engaged citizens (Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2004; Sparkman, Maulding, & Roberts, 2012). Their success, in turn, sustains us.

If you have great strategies for teaching students to be more critical consumers of information, or for helping them to practice listening and empathy, please share your ideas with us!