Helping Students Develop Empathy Instead of Sympathy

When this literature teacher completes a book with her class and hears a student say, “Reading this makes me happy I am an American,” she flips the script. 


Recently, a fellow professor stayed after my presentation on I Am Malala and asked how to avoid “othering” the women in texts coming out of Pakistan when teaching such books. I paused and told her that she was touching on my biggest fear: that my students and I might move through an entire text and come out the other side with students saying, “Reading this makes me happy I am an American.” 

If students leave texts with this lesson, I have not done my job. Teaching world literature with a focus on social justice means that we do not use the texts as mirrors for some students’ privilege, but instead as a way to help students connect and feel with, not for, the characters they encounter. Our job is to develop empathy, not cultivate sympathy.

In my world literature classroom, I mainly confront American exceptionalism—one common manifestation is the belief that gender equality is a given in the United States—but attitudes about privilege can manifest in many ways during a discussion of literature. Here are some statements I hear from time to time: “I am glad I am not a woman,” “I am glad I am not black,” “I am glad I am not [insert another marginalized identity here].”

When I hear such statements, I say to the class, “I have failed you.” I told my colleague at the presentation that, when a student says they feel good about “being an American” because of a comparison to a character’s experience in a text, I put the onus on me to flip the script. I don’t want students to think their feelings are wrong; in fact, those feelings can be an entry point into a larger discussion. But I do want students to know that I don’t want them to leave a text and a character just feeling good about their own world and feeling sad about someone else’s—in other words, feeling sympathy. 

Feelings of pity or sorrow create a hierarchy between the reader and the character, leaving the reader to feel some kind of superiority to the recipient of sympathy. When students feel sympathy, they leave the situation feeling like there is no need to change their own world—only the world of the character. Such a relationship leads to a case where the reader wants to be a savior, when my goal is to challenge students to be allies in the fight for social justice.

An ally works with and listens to compatriots in the fight for social justice. A savior works on behalf of a marginalized group but often has an end goal in mind that does not take into account the voices of those on the margins, disavowing their agency in the fight.

Instead of sympathy, I want students to feel empathy through texts. So after I proclaim my failure, I ask students to find ways that their lives aren’t so different from, say, Malala’s. Talking about sameness and difference is a powerful strategy for students to see that, perhaps, a character’s goals and dreams are similar their own, and that there may be more obstacles and less liberation in the United States than first meets the eye. Let me be clear: I am not asking my female students, for example, to be ungrateful for their access to education, in the case of our Malala discussion. I am not asking them to see parity in the two situations. Instead, I am asking them to see Malala or other characters as subjects with agency that might need allies instead of saviors. When students can understand and share the feelings of a character, literature becomes a site for connection, which I have seen become an impetus for social action and allyship

One example directly stems from the Malala story. A student was seeking out more information about Malala and stumbled upon Malala’s call for clothing donations in the United States. This student then organized a collection in the class at the end of the semester. Instead of reading I Am Malala as a site of sympathy, my student read the book, felt empathy, wanted to learn more about the systems that were denying Malala agency, and acted in a way that Malala requested. My student upended a tendency to fall into the savior complex that relies on someone in a position of privilege dictating the terms of service instead of those terms being dictated by the person in the marginalized position.

In our classrooms, we need to be vigilant that we are not just reifying notions of American exceptionalism and privilege by allowing students to avoid empathy and fall into sympathy. Empathy is much harder to cultivate because it asks us to find points of similarity in a political atmosphere that strives to focus on difference. Though asking students to develop empathy is a more challenging course, we must push our students to feel with instead of for the characters they meet in their reading journeys. This is critical if we are ever going to engage students in social justice practices.

Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More