5. The Importance of Teaching Perspective

Central to the idea of democracy is that individuals participate in making decisions on behalf not just of themselves and their families but their entire communities.  Whether in the form of referenda or voting for councils, sheriffs, attorneys general, or presidents, participating in a democracy involves making decisions that impact other people.  For that reason, perhaps the most foundational of skills we require of citizens is empathy. To understand the perspective of others, regardless of whether we agree with decisions they have made.

Most students work on these skills from the first time they walk through the school doors (sharing, taking turns, listening) and they form a near constant theme for the duration.  As math becomes more advanced there can be more routes from problem to solution depending on the mind of the student. Performance of music varies wildly depending on the interpretation and circumstances of the editor, composer, conductor, or performer.  Analyzing the symbolism of literature requires an understanding of the author and the time in which he or she wrote and can result in a plethora of varied conclusions. The ability to listen and learn about others and understand their circumstances is an important part of many different disciplines.

Paul Erb, a veteran teacher and administrator who currently teaches English at Woodberry Forest School, feels that richness of perspective is challenging for many of his students when they enter his classroom.  While his students are clever and articulate while discussing topics that interest them, he finds that even the brightest can have trouble understanding others and empathizing with them. Even the sharpest sometimes find listening actively to be difficult.  As he noticed this, Erb began to shift the way that he teaches writing; spending as much time as possible “writing from literature instead of about it.” Rather than analyzing language and themes, students can spend more time stepping inside of the worlds about which they’re reading and attempting to make them relevant and alive.  They can spend more time relating distant situations and characters to their own circumstances.

One of the ideas that Kevin Levin returns to often as he talks about his classes is the idea of perspective.  He feels that his students should view events from as many different angles as possible. The early battles of the Civil War from the perspective of the wealthy planter, the slave, the Northern abolitionist, the politically cynical unionist, the freedman.  This is central to his concept of ‘thinking like a historian.’ According to Levin, historians are “constantly trying to frame their questions in a way that helps them to see something maybe from a new perspective and they’re doing that by reading what people have written already about a subject or looking at the relevant primary sources.”

When students follow these lines of inquiry and try to figure out why different people view the same events in different ways, they begin to empathize, or at least understand the motivations of others on a practical level.  Levin feels that this is important. “To me, there’s always a moral component about studying history,” he says, “because none of us had a choice about when we were born.” He feels that providing students with the tools they need to make direct connections to people who found themselves in drastically foreign circumstances or to make connections with individuals who are very different can be powerful.  “Of course you really do have to step outside of yourself,” he says, “but to me, that’s sort of something that enriches – or has the potential to enrich – your own life and enrich the way you see the present.”

A crucial part of any education in Civics has to be this sort of focus on perspective.  On providing students with the tools to understand others and seek out differing opinions and accounts of events and an environment in which to hone them.  Such empathy is crucial to a student’s ability to take conscientious part in the collective decision making of democracy, but it is only the first tool of many.  Closely related to empathy is the ability to think critically. To observe a problem and, not only understand how it may impact others and how others may see it differently but to use that information to arrive at creative and practical solutions.