Friday, August 12, 2016

[Insert Clever "Something's Rotten in Denmark" Cliche Here]

First it was the Finns’ highly exalted and top-ranked education system.  Now it’s the Danes’ happiness-making empathy curriculum.  What have those Scandinavians figured out? 

In their new book, The Danish Way of Parenting; What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl highlight Danish schools’ weekly hour of empathy training--including a collective cake baking activity-- and how that contributes to making the happiest society in the world.  

They offer an elegant case for seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.  As an 8th grade teacher (in the United States), I can indeed see the need for greater empathy among teenagers, and people.  

I’m just not sure it’s as easy as the “piece of cake” pun that Alexander’s summary of her book makes out.  And when we think it is--easy--we imbibe a trope that seriously distorts our expectations of education in our own society.  

Consider this.  Empathy for others isn’t the same in Denmark as in the US.  Indeed, Denmark is 90% ethnically Danish.  The vast majority of its citizens are of the same “people,” and this may actually work against Alexander and Sandahl’s reasoning.  

They argue for an institutionalized program of empathy building--the idea of which will certainly have its moment in the cacophonous education reform debate in the US.  But fundamental psychology ideas explain how in-group affiliations are deep and enduring, and how such intra-group identifying can make life in the out-group more difficult.  

In other words, a homogenous group getting trained to see the world through the eyes of somebody else--in the same homogenous group--really isn’t all that helpful, or unusual.  Indeed, empathy training among the in-group might just as likely reinforce the natural tendencies of the frail and self-centered psyche.

So consider how things are for the other 10% of Denmark’s citizens, and there, things aren’t quite as happy.

Web searches of “racism in Denmark” return not only anecdotes about Danes’ racism against Asians or Turks or Middle Easterners, but also the UN’s Committee for Racial Discrimination (read here) concerns about Denmark’s “deep institutional the labor and property markets, and in the process of applying for citizenship.”

Moreover, Special Advisor for Equal Treatment in The Danish Institute for Human Rights, Nanna Margrethe Krusaa, acknowledges “There may be a tendency for employers to hire people who they think look like themselves.”  She goes on, “We have, of course, a discrimination law that says that one [may not] rule out candidates because of their ethnic background, but we have not yet reached the point where all employers comply with the law.” (here)

Apparently, the cake-making empathy curriculum hasn’t yet caught up with these 10% of the population. 

But Denmark’s number one ranking in income equality (among OECD countries) reflects a kind of fairness and generosity, right?  Perhaps, but again, in-group dynamics make it psychologically easier for people to accept wealth-redistribution to others in their own group, but less so to the out-group.

In short, maybe the “piece of cake” curriculum is cheerfully embraced by Danes because it’s the consequence of deep and enduring demographic realities, rather than the cause of empathy and happiness.

Contrast the United States.  Clearly, we struggle mightily with race problems, and we are notorious for both our high income inequality and lack of social safety net.  

Accept these observations, for the sake of discussion.  But also accept that the Americans are significantly more generous in private giving than Denmark.  In the Charities Aid Foundation (a UK organization) 2015 world ranking of giving, the US is number 2; Denmark is number 39.  

Tellingly, for the claims about an empathy curriculum, in the “help a stranger” index, the US ranks 3rd; Denmark 61st.

Undoubtedly, American society is a confusing melange of socio-economic circumstances.  Income inequality is high, but we give more money and help strangers more often than the supposedly empathic Danes.  Further, Americans transfer and donate substantial wealth--indeed, economists are projecting an inter-generational transfer of dozens of trillions of dollars in the next 30 years, but not by way of the government. 

Given all this, it would be unwise to hope that simply adopting Denmark’s cake-making empathy program would turn our society around.  We need to stop thinking that a school program or the right new curriculum will solve the deep and divisive problems we have in the United States.  Schools can’t bear burdens that heavy.

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