"Everybody can be great ... because everybody can serve." - MLK
You see it everyday in the news, someone who is different is told to go back to where they “came from.” A kid who is different is bullied, beaten, or worse. Someone down on their luck is told they deserve it. Why? Why do we allow this to be a reality in our world? And what does this have to do with education transformation?
As it turns out, compassion, empathy, and altruism, while biological traits, can also be taught and cultivated. It is also something that is fundamental to the survival of our species. It is what will lead to collaboration to tackle the problems that we all face on this globe. These traits will make the world a better place and lead to happier lives. Why not create a school system that values these traits over, or at least as much as, academic excellence?
Can Altruism Be Taught?
It can and it should. Philosophers, ethologists, and evolutionary biologists all speculate that a species marked more by altruism than by aggression has a better chance to survive. A Chinese proverb says "If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else." In fact, only 10% of happiness levels lie in life circumstances. About 40% of our happiness lies in things that are within our control, and kindness is one of them. However, according to a national survey conducted by the Making Caring Common Project, only 20% of youth say caring for others is a top priority, and youth are 3x more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades than if I’m a caring community member.’ Our current system creates individuals that are more concerned with their own success, chasing numbers and grades. They learn how to pass tests, negotiate grades, and find loopholes, all to better their ranking. Just imagine a system that finds and celebrates individual strengths and collaboration. Imagine a problem solving environment where failure is a step closer to solution rather than something to be feared.
The good news is that repairing this is simpler than it might seem. It turns out altruism comes naturally to kids. According to psychologist Michael Tomasello, they begin showing altruistic tendencies as soon as 2 years old. While many people know this stage as the “terrible twos” it is also the “little helper” stage. They have an almost reflexive desire to help. As they grow, they begin to learn what it means to be part of a group. Their cooperation is effected by their surroundings and what others think of them. "They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation," he said. "But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others—their public reputation and self—as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves." All we need to do is continue to encourage the altruistic behavior as they grow.
It is through community involvement and effective altruism that we begin to help children see beyond themselves and their immediate circle. This is where we teach children to become globally and culturally aware individuals. Let me quickly define the difference between altruism and effective altruism. Altruism is the concern for the well-being of others. Effective altruism is when we take actuation on that concern to make a positive difference in the well-bing of others. The movement of effective altruism also emphasizes strategic action so that we can have a greater impact.
Living in a democratic and positive society requires effort. It requires an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. However, at the moment, barely more than half the population in the U.S. votes in the presidential election and even fewer vote for local officials. Only a quarter of the population volunteers to participate in their communities. By participating in civic duties, individuals learn that their actions effect more than themselves and have an impact on others. Participating in community service can benefit students in a number of ways:
As with anything, if you want something to become a habit you need to be a part of a community that already lives that habit. When children live in a reality where community involvement is par for the course, they will be more likely to carry the habit into adulthood. Our schools could be creating an environment where altruism, civic duty, and multicultural awareness are a regular part of students lives.
For more on cultivating altruism I recommend Ted Radio Hour's "Wired for Altruism."