Can Schools Teach Kindness?

Courtesy of Reach Out Recovery.

Written by Therena Ho

Kindness leads to positive externalities such as happier, integrated neighborhoods or prosperous business partnerships. But, can schools teach kindness?

Given recent tragic events in Charlottesville and Parkland, society needs a kinder populous, where people consider one another’s feelings and safety. As British philosopher Bertrand Russell asserts, information and skills are acquired either through education or experience. Kindness – the quality of being considerate, amiable, and generous – can be thought of as a behavior or skillset and is recognized as a ‘virtue’ and ‘value’ in many cultures. Kindness leads to positive externalities such as happier, integrated neighborhoods or prosperous business partnerships. But, can schools teach kindness?

Some religious institutions have inspired others to teach kindness. According to the New York Times, the Dalai Lama inspired many secular preschools to educate future children through kindness. Similar to practices of Buddhist meditators, the first step is to help young minds pay closer attention to their emotions and bodily sensations to foster compassion and teach them to control their responses to uncontrollable environments. Established by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, the Kindness Curriculum introduces sensory stories and games to develop mindfulness in children. The program has found success in a Jackson Heights, Queens neighborhood where tools were given to help children cope with hurt and other interpersonal conflicts due to immigration issues.

Many studies have found that unkindness stems from our personal feelings. If we take a minute to focus on ourselves and calm down, we can avoid aggression towards others. Experts have also found that a critical developmental window for people lies between ages four and seven, when the brain is young and open to absorbing new information and developing psychological habits. Receiving kindness training at this age therefore has the potential to be highly influential and long-lasting. For middle school students, researchers suggest implementing the ‘Kind Campaign’, which targets bullying with its proposed solution of apology letters.

Here at Stern, every senior has to take the Social Impact class Professional Responsibility and Leadership, but the topic of ‘kindness’ is not directly addressed. The Gould Standard sat down with Professor Statler, the Director of Business Ethics and Social Impact Programming for Stern’s Undergraduate College, to inquire further.

Does Stern teach courses about kindness or courses relating to kindness?

“Not to my knowledge, frankly. There is a strong focus on the technical, instrumental skills such as problem-solving and critical-thinking, but I do not know of any courses outside of the Social Impact Core that focus on individual character.”

Does the program teach similar topics in the senior Business Ethics class “Professional Responsibility and Leadership”?

“The syllabus was revised this past fall to include resources from Positive Psychology that focus on character development, strengths, and virtues. Of the virtues emphasized in the literature, we end up focusing on ‘Practical Wisdom’, where it would be practically unwise to be mean to people. Peer-to-peer assessments such as ratings are a part of culture, and so bullies cannot hide. This is also rooted in biology, and Darwin talks about ‘group selection’ and how it relates to evolutionary advantage.”

What courses shall Stern teach instead?

“To my knowledge, the only classes that are required of all Stern students to take that have the word ‘leadership’ in them are the Freshman Cohort Leadership program and the Senior Professional Responsibility and Leadership program. I think those two courses are important, and Dean Bhatia and I are trying to integrate them with a new co-curricular initiative where senior students engage in dialogue with the freshmen. My sense is that Stern students would benefit from additional coursework that focuses on them and the qualities of their character. Even within the concentrations, what does marketing leadership look like? Finance? Those are questions that I think can be very useful to address.”

What educational programs exist outside of Stern that cover similar topics?

“One way in which kindness is embedded is in design-based approaches to product development or strategy. It starts with empathy. You go out in the field, and you ethnographically try to put yourself in the shoes of those who have needs and you think of what life would be like if you were him or her. That basic gesture is one of the roots of kindness and compassion.”

Do you think there are improvements that can be made or any insights based on student feedback you think are important to address?

“In reference to student feedback, I see that they get wrapped up in what others expect of them that they become unkind to themselves. There is the peer pressure to pursue the highest salary or the shinier career path, and it is hard to be compassionate to others when you are not in tune with yourself. Based on that, Stern students can use a lot more individual reflection to identify personal values and engage with their peers on those grounds.

Additionally, there is something to be said about faculty, that there is a distinction between knowledge by representation and knowledge by exemplification. You cannot just talk about kindness, you have to enact and embody it. So, I would also be keen to brainstorm with my colleagues about how we can be our best selves at work and in classrooms, to inspire students and each other to ‘up our game’ and have a friendlier community.”

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