Cultural empathy Archives - St. Stephen's University

Cultural Empathy as a Passive Learning Experience

By | 2012, Asia | No Comments

Something that has concerned me since the beginning of the semester until now is the difference between active and passive learning. When we identify those things that we have learned we often think of the actively sought out ones, such as learning a language or mathematics. I think it is hard to identify those things that we learn passively ourselves, but these are just the things that others are keen to notice. These would be comments like ‘you have gotten so much better at speaking’ or ‘your powers of leadership have grown immensely.’ The reason for this is that these attributes are borne out of experience and not actively attained.

In the spirit of our travel experience I think I may have found a flaw in the program. Before and during this trip, as well as others, we have prided ourselves at SSU in being intentionally observant travelers. This is to say that we try to seek out the value in all experience and to broaden our worldview. However, there is a point at which I think this hyper-intentionality is counter-productive. We have spent so much time talking about the values and perspectives of Eastern cultures that I think many of us came ‘knowing what to expect.’ Although this is a false expectation, we have nonetheless given ourselves into it with the best intentions.

I have had an interesting opportunity to spend time with two other travel-study groups from American universities. What I have noticed is that their programs do not rely heavily on any sort of cultural empathy or enlightenment in this regard. That is not their main goal. At any rate, as this has not been their main goal their passive learning in this field has been tremendous. The amount of cultural sensitivity and the capacity to try new things in my new friend Jeff (from St Olaf’s University in Minnesota) has far exceeded my own. I have been so hard-pressed to seek this out that it has made me lose the energy for it.

I think that if we value empathy all we need to do is put ourselves in environments that we wish to understand, and we can trust that just by being there our values will rise to the surface. If we concern ourselves constantly with understanding the world around us we may just be losing what we might have gained passively.