The IDEA Society determines a theme every year. 2011’s theme was “Empathy: Walking in Another’s Shoes”. Empathy has many dimensions. It can improve personal, social, even international relations. Betty Jean Craig is a special name for UGA and Athens. She was the director of Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, an institution that has made great contributions to the intellectual climate of the university. Also, the Delta Prize for Global Understanding was developed by Betty Jean Craige and Gary Bertsch. She is also the author of American Patriotism in a Global Society, published by SUNY press. So, we thought that we have a lot to learn from her about empathy.
Empathy for a More Peaceful Global Society
IDEA: How do you define empathy?
Dr. Craige: The dictionary says that it is the understanding of others’ situation. I would refine that as the ability to transcend personal, cultural, family, national, religious or geographical boundaries to understand that people on the other side of these boundaries have similar thoughts and emotions and desires to our own. Empathy enables us to transcend the boundaries of our species to understand dogs, cats and birds and monkeys and other animals. All feel pain and sorrow and have emotions and desires that are not terribly unlike ours.
IDEA: What do you think the role of empathy is in having a good society?
Dr. Craige: If more people had empathy, we would have a more peaceful global society. Lack of empathy—and sometimes it is a deliberate destruction of empathy by the leaders in a world—enables the society to fight other people because then they don’t see the people as real people.
I think we have a better society if we conscientiously develop empathy in children. If the development of empathy were a major component of elementary
school education, we would have children who would be probably more liberal than their parents and we would have children who would be less prejudiced more interested in interacting with people not like themselves. And, finally—and nobody is exactly like us, so, we are all cooperating—I think without education we tend to be tribalistic; we tend to think that our way of looking at the world is the only right way, that our religions are the only right religion, that our customs, values, practices are the only right
way to live and everybody else is wrong, and if you think that everybody else is wrong then you think it would be a better world if we conquered them or we defeated them, or if we wage war on them.
If we think we have the only right way to live, then we think we are justified in waging war on the people who have the wrong way to live. So, back to empathy in the grade schools, I think we need to recognize that it is an important trait to develop among children. I think having pets helps with empathy, and I think children should be playing with children of other races and that is happening in the schools and other religions. I think gradually it is happening, but if I were in charge of all teachers in the grade schools, I’d say let’s make sure we are developing empathetic children.
IDEA: Right here, I would like to introduce a project that, as the IDEA Society, we are trying to promote it inAthens. It is the Art & Essay Contest, and this year’s theme is on empathy. We invite middle and high school students to write or to draw on empathy, and this year they are going to submit their works and they will be competing with other friends. If they win they will be taken to see a different culture, to Turkey.
Dr. Craige: That’s wonderful.
IDEA: Last year we had a total of 2000 submissions. How about at the college level? Do you think if there are different kinds of ways to promote empathy among the college students like us, those at the UGA?
Dr. Craige: I think, when a
university recognizes that we live in a global society—that we need to teach students not only history of western cultures but of all the many different cultures in the world and teach the many different religions in the world and many different literatures—we are on our way to increasing empathy among college students. I think that’s what education does; I think education breaks down barriers and enables people to identify with or understand people who are different from themselves. Lack of education, the absence of education, fosters tribalist and nationalist views. When not educated, one does not understand there are many ways to be a good person in this world. When you are educated and you learn the history of cultures, read literature written by people of other places, and hear music and all that, then you start thinking that this is a great global society, and there are all kinds of ways to make a better world.
I think that some people who are not educated themselves are very fearful that their children will be growing up different from them. There are probably difficulties within families when very traditionally developed parents have children who go to school and want to dress differently from their parents, want to
get an education, and want to read books that their parents wouldn’t approve of. It is a long process, it is difficult.
IDEA: I would like to ask about the Delta Prize. That would be something that strongly relates to empathy.
Dr. Craige: Yes. Before you leave, I’ll give you the 2009 proceedings because the 2009 Delta Prize went to Muhammad Al Baradei. He would be a marvelous leader of Egypt. He is a person who is very well educated. He has a kind of global vision. He said in his acceptance speech that he didn’t believe that we should divide ourselves between us and “them,” which is something that I’ve written about in my book American Patriotism in a Global Society. He has a lot of support from people of all countries, cultures. He is widely respected. He is not nationalistic. I think he could bring together Egyptians of different fractions because he is used to bringing people together anyway. I am very proud that we gave him the 2009 Delta Prize. Lee Shearer from the Athens Banner-Herald is going to write an article in the Banner-Herald about Muhammad Al Baradei.
IDEA: Let’s talk a bit about the Delta Prize. So, in 1997 Delta Airlines and theUniversityofGeorgiacreated this prize, right? It is nearly 1 million dollars.
Dr. Craige: It is not enough. Yes, we, Gary Bertsch and I, received the gift of what we asked for from Delta Airlines. Our idea was that we wanted UGA to be involved in giving an international prize that promotes understanding across cultural boundaries and inter-cultural understanding.
IDEA: We have all those famous people over here like Ted Turner, Gorbachov and all those other people. If you were to rate all those recipients, who would be at the top in terms of empathy?
Dr. Craige: The Delta Prize is for global understanding. All these people, they are people who think big, who are capable of promoting cooperation among people who are not like each other. The basis for the selection of recipients of the Delta Prize is empathy, so I can’t rank them.
IDEA: There are many different cultures in theU.S.Do you think that US colleges and institutes like universities have enough empathy and tolerance for people from other cultural backgrounds?
Dr. Craige: I can only speak about public and secular universities and colleges, and I think we are making progress. We are going in the right direction. The universities and colleges now recognize we are in a global society, and we are gradually globalizing our curriculum.
IDEA: About two weeks ago we celebrated desegregation at UGA. So, do you see any relationship between desegregation and understanding of empathy?
Dr. Craige: Oh yes. (Pointing to Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s picture) It was a terrible experience for these children. They were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old that time, and it was a terrible experience. But the consequence is the new regeneration of students, who are twenty years old, are far less prejudiced than their parents. In the 1960s, my parents in El Paso, Texas, and all their friends said, “You can’t legislate morality”; “You can’t legislate integration,” and I believe you can. I believe laws change behaviors, so I have always been in favor of laws that change pernicious social behavior.
I think that this generation of students is a generation where they are at very much ease with each other. Last Friday, the Wilson Center sponsored a round table on the show “I Love Lucy.” I don’t know if you know that show? It is a comedy in the fifties, and Lucille Ball, who is a comedian, is married to Ricky Ricardo, who is a Cuban. And in 1951, there was great prejudice against anybody who was Spanish speaking, and so for there to be a television couple with a red-headed White woman married to a Cuban with a strong accent, that was very progressive. But, in this round table discussion, we talked about what was funny, and at that time it was funny to listen to Ricky Ricardo speak English. I am just embarrassed to think that I was part of the laughing audience. There he was, far more educated than any of us watching because he could speak two languages perfectly fluently. But yet Americans were laughing at him because he did not speak their language English as well as they did. That’s a kind of deep and bitter prejudice that I think we’re gradually moving out of. So, the media or the media and public secular universities are leading to way to a more empathetic society. I also think that this might be controversial, but I think that intermarriages, interfamilial relationships and all that will do much to break down the barriers.
IDEA: I think UGA is trying hard to improve diversity…
Dr. Craige: I am very happy with UGA, very happy with our leadership here. In fifty years, in the first place, geographical barriers are not going to be barriers. For thousands of years, geographical barriers kept Asian people looking different from European people who look different from African people. All those barriers are gone. I think social barriers are breaking down and national barriers are breaking down, and the internet is really braking down national barriers. So, some thirty years ago, our young people wouldn’t have cared about what was going on Egypt. Now, it is on television and on the internet—everything. Young students who are twenty years old are indentifying with students inEgypt. That’s pretty remarkable. That shows empathy. That wouldn’t have been expected.