11/05/2010 07:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two Subjects Missing in the Curriculum

Seldom do the words aimlessness or empathy appear in school mission statements. They should.

Seeds of brilliance need a dose of aimlessness to flower. In all art forms, it seems that the most profound work sometimes emerges from near-sloth. Poets and composers often speak of the poem or melody that "came to them" only when the clutter was removed from daily existence. Mathematicians and philosophers seldom develop seminal insights through highly structured, intense work. "I want a brilliant theory on my desk in 30 minutes!" I don't think so. These things often arise from empty space and silence, from stretches of indulgent, seemingly aimless musing -- walks in the woods, long stretches of solitude. The muse arrives only when all the obligatory invited guests have departed.

This experience is not exclusive to artists and scholars. Innovations of all kinds, in business, technology, science and other fields, don't automatically come under the pressure of deadlines. They often emerge when the conscious, the subconscious, intuition and knowledge are given room to merge in alchemical bloom. For too many students, time is so intensely structured during and after school that creativity and originality don't have time to gestate. Educators should make room for some aimlessness, in and/or outside of the school day!

Empathy is similarly underrated. Often confused with its sibling, "sympathy," empathy is arguably the centerpiece of learning and scholarship. Empathy does not mean "feeling sorry" for someone. It is, quite to the contrary, the capacity to understand another perspective by considering it through the lens of another person, time or situation rather than through only your own. Empathy often involves understanding a viewpoint you have little sympathy for.

Last December, Calhoun Upper School students staged a powerful production of The Laramie Project, a piece revisiting the Wyoming murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The performances were stunning -- not only because of their high level of craft, but because of the capacity for empathy that allowed the students to inhabit the characters they played. And not all of the characters in The Laramie Project are sympathetic. The play includes Matthew's murderers, the town's unrepentant homophobes and longtime Wyoming folks who sought to reconcile the horror of this murder with their previously unchallenged sense of themselves. It was remarkable to watch teenagers capture the complexity and humanity of these folks, who could have been simple caricatures in a lesser production.

Empathy should be a daily tonic in schools. We should lead students to better understand a scientific concept by inviting them to wear the skins of intelligent skeptics. They should come to understand international conflict including terrorism -- not through a simple theological belief in good and evil or through a nationalistic lens, but by immersing themselves in others milieu and developing empathy for the complex experiences that can fuel rage. They should learn about important social and historical issues by living for a while on the side of the issue most foreign to their initial point of view. And, of course, our students should learn about the diversity of humankind by listening to and empathizing with one another, not by judging one another from the narrow safety of their own experiences. Real education must leave room for aimless contemplation and draw students into empathic relationships with their subject matter and their peers. None of this is "instead of" knowledge and skill. It must be done to give meaning and purpose to knowledge and skill.

This piece first appeared in the Calhoun Chronicle.