Learning With Empathy

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke about the wide-reaching impact his musical centered on American history has had on younger generations. He discussed the subsequent creations of some young admirers, in which they take a new perspective on history as Miranda did in Hamilton. Miranda explained that these new perspectives are about “opening up history not just as facts to memorize, but as stories that aren’t being told.” This quote inspired me to examine just how we learn not just history, but all the other subjects that are taught in schools. Most students prioritize being prepared for their next exam, but how valuable is that in the long run?

Boston College students ranked high in their respective high school classes. They were the role models that their peers strived to be like. They’re driven to achieve by the strong competition surrounding them. While it may seem like adolescent drama, the rivalry to be the top of the class is primarily a result of the selective nature of college admissions. Despite the stress it can put on students, this conflict may be a good thing in the long run. Adolescent psychologist Mary Alvord notes that, “A little stress and in moderation can be helpful to high schoolers in so many ways. It motivates them to study, to do better.” But this kind of competition often leads students to incessant memorization of a course’s material to achieve good exam scores rather than a desire to obtain a deeper understanding of it.

Many courses require students to recite specific aspects of the material, such as dates, names, or formulas. If exams ask students to recall the year of a certain event and other specific details, students often end up studying the textbook and repeating the information verbatim from the book. This kind of learning results in the knowledge of the material in isolation: Without the context, students are not able to uncover the meaning behind the event. One writer describes this memorization form of studying as “a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding.”

Just as Miranda explained in his interview, we need to learn in a way that also involves active interaction with the material. Of course, we have all found ourselves at some point up way too late trying to get through readings we have left to the last possible minute. Under these circumstances, we often just want to get it over with. But taking the time to find a deeper meaning and develop a more personal understanding of it often pays off more in the end.

The biggest part to this understanding is one ability: empathy. In other words, we need to be able to take ourselves out of our own minds and try to imagine what life was like at the time of a historical event, what the impact of a scientific discovery might be on real lives, or how a philosophical theory can be applied to everyday conflicts. Empathy allows us to place ourselves in the shoes of those who came before us. We can understand the efforts it took individuals just like ourselves to allow us to achieve the progress we have. It takes something that Miranda shows in strides in Hamilton but students struggle with: the ability to see beyond an exam.

In one of his “Crash Course” YouTube videos on world history, author John Green acknowledged this tunnel-vision students have on upcoming exams. He explains that the real test takes place throughout our entire lives—examining whether we have the ability to think for ourselves, to empathize with others, and understand the “broader context” within which our lives are occurring. In turn, the empathy we give to our learning will teach us to how to have empathy in our own lives.

So, next time you are faced with a reading assignment for a course, dedicate more time to it. Studies from Indiana University indicate that the more time students spend studying and the more engaged they are with the material, the better they perform in the courses. Taking more time to dive deeper into the material not only makes you a better student, but also a more developed person overall with a strong sense of empathy and understanding. As Green says, the real, life-long test will examine our abilities to find a deeper meaning in the world throughout our lives and yes, “everything, everything will be on it.”

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor