I Will Never be Afraid of Empathy

by Kate Reeves, LiveGirl Youth Advisory Board President

Last Thursday, New Canaan High School brought in a world renowned poet, Carlos Andrés Gómez, to foster an appreciation for the literary arts among students.  As a senior at New Canaan High School who is passionate about poetry, I was dismayed and ashamed to read the recent article entitled “Empathy or Gateway to Ideological Agenda?” published in the New Canaan Advertiser. 

This response is demonstrative of an increasing reactionary culture that refuses to acknowledge the value in listening to contradictory opinions.  However, if we want to continue to pride ourselves on being one of the best public education systems in the country, it is imperative that we allow students to confront the complex issues of our society such as racial inequality, gender norms, and stereotyping.  It truly is not controversial to have a speaker come and discuss their opinion on something.  All forms of intellectual expression – whether visual art, literary works, historical speeches, or poems – express opinion.  In order to prepare for the real world, we must learn how to listen to each other, analyze different points of views, and express their own opinions in powerful ways.  If you want to shield your kids from disagreement, how do you expect them to thrive in a world where successful people are those who have a deep understanding of how to effectively overcome differences and the greatest innovators are those who are not scared to chart a course in the controversy of the unknown?  

A good education does not tell us what to think, it tells how to think – curiously and compassionately.  Perhaps, some agreed with the ideas of Gómez, and they were able to find inspiration in seeing them expressed in this literary form.  Perhaps, some disagreed, but they were able to appreciate the poetry and simultaneously see the world from a new lense, allowing them to reaffirm their own opinions with a deeper grasp for reality underneath them.  The idea that Gómez was “given access to our teens during their school day” is insulting.  Teens are not pawns that can be traded off to be brainwashed; we are mature students that are more than capable of nuanced thinking.  Carlos did not tell students what they should think, rather he told students what he thinks, leaving it open for them to internalize his words and decide what it means to them, or even if it means anything to them at all.

If your child listening to what someone else thinks is shocking and alarming to you, then you should take up this problem with education as a whole.  Primary source analysis is an integral part of the curriculum at New Canaan High School.  We are regularly asked to read excerpts and take notes on the historical context, audience, purpose, point of view, and significance.  We do this because learning how to understand where someone is coming from, who they are trying to appeal to, and what they are trying to address is a critical career and life skill.  Likewise, in English we read books which shockingly (!) have hundreds of pages dedicated to revealing the author’s opinions.  Education itself is based off of learning what other people think, learning what to accept, and learning what to question.  So I truly don’t understand what is so controversial about bringing in someone who is expressing their opinion.

What is even more baffling to me is that parents are complaining despite the fact that Carlos Andrés Gómez was brought in by the Parent Faculty Association, who looked at Carlos’s work and decided to fund this assembly on the basis that it would be extraordinary learning opportunity for their kids.  This brings me to a critical point, which is that if you feel there is an overrepresentation of “liberal opinions” then stop complaining about how much you hate the liberal opinion and get involved to voice your own opinions!  For instance, there is a Young Democrats Club, but there is no Young Republicans Club; as editor of the school literary magazine, I can tell you we get many submissions of poetry that advocate for socially progressive causes, but not for conservative causes; students had every first amendment right to walk out of the auditorium if they disagreed with the poet’s message and yet nobody did.  What you are witnessing is not the school creating a progressive curriculum, it is New Canaan becoming more progressive.

Yet, out of everything in the article, the sentiment that is most appalling and disappointing is the idea that “empathy becomes a gateway to an ideological agenda”.   No, empathy is not a gateway to some underlying agenda.  Empathy is the agenda.  It is the force that will unify the hurting brokenness of our country, of our world.  It is the force that will allow us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Mark 12:31) and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8).  It is a force of unstoppable, contagious kindness.  That sounds like my kind of ideological agenda.