I consider myself to be a pretty nice person. While I have my missteps, my moments of “bucket dipping” as they say (as do we all!), I hold doors for people, bless strangers when they sneeze, am a chronic thanker (I say thank you ALL. The. Time.). But one thing that I’ve noticed at FSU is how courteous and helpful the people are. A hallmark of this I’ve seen is asking people who look lost if they need help. I am the first to admit that I’m far from competent enough to be able to do that. And possibly, even after I learn the campus, still a flight risk to direct someone somewhere. But that’s the sort of culture that exists here, and it lets me know that I really am in the right place.

In light of my surroundings, articles such as this one, posted in the Chronicle this morning, make me upset. Well, not upset. Sad, and a little confused.

The point of the article, for those not ambitious enough to read it (which is OK!), is that there has been a consistent drop in college students’ ability to empathize with others, to see a situation from someone else’s shoes and be able to feel accordingly. This to me is very interesting, given the rise in civic education and the general rise of activism in our generation. Stories of students who entered the Peace Corps and engaged in similar projects in the 60s are mirrored in today’s organizations such as TOMS Shoes, Teach for America, CityYear, and AmeriCorps. And yet, our empathy is dropping.

Is it possible we’ve missed a step?

The only explanation that I can think of for such a chasm between our desire to help others, combined with a drop in empathy, is the division that is drawn between helping those who are less fortunate, and helping those who are viewed as “as fortunate”. That is to say, we help people who appear to need help. But those who are in the same surroundings, to appear to be of well enough means to help themselves, are left behind.

I saw an example of this last night in our intramural kickball championship game. During the game, one of our players got hurt while baserunning. I watched an entire team of med students (as well as “Cheerleaders” also in their program) not only watch as he writhed on the ground, but several of them were encouraging the person holding the ball to tag him. It absolutely disgusted me- not just because it showed a lack of civility, another value that I hold in very high regard, but because it seemed to be wholly missing the empathy piece- how would you want someone to attend to you, were you in the same situation?

Those who work in civic education may be able to refute this, and I welcome more perspectives on the phenomenon- I’m admittedly an outsider in that area, and want to learn more about what you’ve seen from students in this regard.

What can we do to make sure that students don’t just take care of themselves personally, and take care of those who are less fortunate, but also take care of each other?

4 thoughts on “Questioned My Own Niceness

  1. Firstly… The NICENESS of everyone at FSU is a large part of why I chose FSU over UF when choosing schools for undergrad. When I was walking around campus so many people stopped and approached us to see if we needed help. Even more were quick to point out fun things to see while we were there and interesting things to do in Tally. I loved that.Secondly… Pertaining to lack of empathy….If our students are in fact experiencing a lack of empathy I'd like to point out a possible cause. Technology. I know that it's often touted as the root of the degradation of the social lives of all millenials but I also find that technology has served to strengthen the convictions and self confidence in many of us. We now have the luxury of not only developing our beliefs through easily obtained information and quick research but we are also able to proselytize anonymously and aggressively through the use of technology. It's harder to empathize with people of different world views and experiences because 1.) it's so easy to find people through technology with similar world views/experiences and 2.) it's much more difficult to put a face to a name… or a face to a belief/story. Also, the rise of volunteerism and the amount to which we all, as Millenials, integrate those principles into our lifestyles is not affected, I don't think, by the decline of empathy. We have trained ourselves to know that community service is a necessary part of our day to day – and we've integrated that into everything so that we no longer really have to empathize or think about it in order to perform it. March of Dimes, Relay for Life, going to "Jail" for Jerry's Kids. You can donate or participate without ever having to meet someone you're fundraising for. (You don't have to but it's possible).I think that our students are more overworked and overstimulated than ever before. They're less patient with each other because at any given moment they have a to-do list in their head and 16 different emotions they're dealing with. It's hard to be empathetic when you're constantly annoyed. :)What I love is that there is a slowly growing group of people who are getting back to their roots… encouraging slow social interactions, gardening in organic gardens on campus, sharing food and ideas at every chance. I see students taking care of each other every day. ❤

  2. I agree with you on several points here, Jessa. Particularly the contribution of technology to the problem. We're of the belief that we "know" people, based on what they place on their profiles. But that sort of knowing people doesn't lend itself to empathy. Knowing facts about someone, and knowing how someone feels about something, are very different.Tonight at kickball, one of our players got hurt while baserunning. I watched an entire team of med students (as well as "Cheerleaders" also in their program) not only watch as he writhed on the ground, but several of them were encouraging the person holding the ball to tag him. Absolutely disgusted me. I understand the nature of getting bogged down enough in one's own life to forget to think about others. But I also understand that it only takes a moment to acknowledge another individual, and in that moment, both parties lives are better.I knew you'd have something good to say on this one 🙂

  3. Amma – Good reflection on that article from yesterday. This isn't a fully fleshed out idea yet, but I wonder if the concept of empathy is changing with a new generation. In that, it's not that they aren't empathic, it's that the type of empathy can't be compared to what it was like in the 60s. Much like language evolves… Just thoughts right now…

  4. Thank you Tom! I have wondered if it's a semantics issue, or a matter of not operating with common definitions, but it's hard to dispense with the old idea, knowing that it's still out there in some form.So much to think about on this…

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