The compassion test March 1, 2012 by Matthew Taylor
As someone who for various reasons (almost none of which bear critical examination) feels in need of a little compassion right now, I was drawn magnetically to this item on the BBC website. A high powered Commission has reached the conclusion that the possession of compassionate values is a vital attribute for staff providing caring services to elderly people.
This immediately raises a whole series of fascinating issues. In no particular order:
How might job candidates be tested for compassion? Good employment practice encourages adhering to strictly objective criteria in recruitment, so how would an ostensibly subjective quality like compassion be assessed?
How might we go about teaching compassion, whether in schools or colleges? Traditionalists would presumably suggest studying the lives of compassionate greats (although often figures we associate with compassion – like Florence Nightingale – turn out to be rather fierce on an interpersonal level), and also extra-curricular volunteering. Progressives, in contrast, would see the Commission’s view reinforcing an emphasis in the mainstream curriculum on the whole child and the development of emotional intelligence. I am more in the latter camp and would argue that instilling compassion is also about how people learn to treat each other in educational establishments. I am particularly impressed by the use among pupils of restorative practice (something done very impressively in the RSA Academy Tipton
Is it right to see compassion primarily as a personal attribute? A couple of days ago I was reporting research which suggests the rich are more selfish partly as a consequence of the social norms of the privileged. I am sure Philip Zimbardo – he of the Stanford prison experiment – would argue that compassion is primarily a function of social norms within institutions. Zimbardo famously argued ‘it’s not the rotten apple, it’s the rotten barrel’ to which presumably ‘it’s not the compassionate person, it’s the compassionate institution’ is a corollary.
As machines get cleverer and cleverer, human added value will increasingly reside in things that only we can do. One of these things – certainly for the foreseeable future and arguably forever – is feeling empathy and compassion. The Commission’s conclusion therefore reinforces a critique of the connections between attributes and rewards in the labour market. If compassion is without doubt going to be a skill in greater need (both in terms of quantity and quality ) then isn’t it about time we started finding ways of rewarding it properly?
Matthew 's blog raises some interesting questions about how we nurture a compassionate disposition and encourage and facilitate the development of a more compassionate society. On a daily basis I experience compassionate feelings when I read a newspaper report, magazine article or book, or see or hear a radio, TV, internet broadcast, or when I see images of people which have experienced a tragedy or who are suffering in some way. The recent bombardment of Homs in Syria and the grief of families who have lost their loved ones. In other words, because of the comfortable life I live, I have to be exposed to situations that trigger empathic emotional responses. But rarely do I do anything that will in anyway contribute to the alleviation of someone's suffering. The times I have actually done something have been just to dip into my pocket to make a donation to Children in Need or to a disaster appeal. This happened last November when after seeing several Oxfam East African appeal adverts, and the inspiring 'One Life' YouTube video that really moved me, I dedicated an event I had organised to helping to raise some money for Oxfam.
Acts of compassion in my life, where I have tried to do something to help someone, have been where they involve people who are close to me. Matthew Taylor's blog made me realise that although I experience feelings of compassion for others, they rarely lead to any sort of action. My deficiency was brought home to me a few minutes ago when my wife, who is a very compassionate person, told me she was going to invite a young colleague who was about to have an operation on his hand, to stay with us for a few days to help him convalesce. She gave me a lesson in how compassion is enacted in everyday life.
So what has compassion got to do with lifewide learning and education? I guess this story shows that there are always opportunities for us to be compassionate in our everyday life, but we have to see the opportunity and do something about it. I think we need to focus more attention on this aspect of our value system in our framework for supporting lifewide learning and development. I'm going to add this to my personal development plan.