Life Learning Magazine

About         Articles         Quotes         Editor's Blog

Empathy is the Tenth Intelligence

The Tenth Intelligence
By David Albert

“That best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
~William Wordsworth, “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”

I have on occasion wondered what it might have been like to go through life as a Robin.

I never had the opportunity to find out. In the second month of the first grade at P.S. 131½, my public elementary school in New York City, we were separated into “Bluebirds and Robins.” (I have since discovered that in other schools there were also “Sparrows,” who were “Special Ed” children before Special Ed was invented, those destined to ride “the short bus.” *) I don’t remember any test being involved; we were just told we were either Robins or Bluebirds and that was that.

* See Jonathan Mooney’s The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal (New York, NY: Holt, 2007). It’s a great read!

All of us Bluebirds got to sit together, and do reading together. Same for the Robins. Bluebird books had words in them; Robin books had only pictures. I remember being at least mildly unhappy about that at the time, as I had friends among the Robins, and why couldn’t I have a book with nice pictures in it?

But by the second grade, there were no longer any Robins in my class. No one bothered to call us Bluebirds anymore. But we knew. We were the chosen smart ones – ninety percent Jewish (this was New York City in the 1950s, and almost all our teachers were Jewish – you should have heard them try to teach us Christmas carols), and the few Catholics and precisely one Protestant were sons and daughters of schoolteachers. We spent absolutely no time with the Robins any more. We didn’t eat lunch with them, go to the schoolyard at the same time, walk home with them. Soon, our friends were no longer friends.

Actually, there were four classes per grade at P.S. 131½ in Queens. We were the “top” class. By the time you got to the “bottom” class, there were lots of Protestants, and no Jews. When the schools were finally desegregated, all the bused-in Black kids were automatically placed in the bottom class. **

** A friend of mine from Pittsburgh recently told me about enrolling his multiracial son in the 2nd grade (in 1980!). Seeing that he looked Black, they immediately made him a “Blackbird” (which meant, everyone agreed, he was doomed to failure; and all the kids were Black. Yes, really – they called them “Blackbirds”!). When my friend wrote to the school that his son was unchallenged (they had no books!), they moved him up one group. Still unhappy, he went to see the principal. The principal took one look at his white complexion, and without a single word being necessary, moved his son up one group more. So much for the “science” of education.)

Now, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea what happened in those other classes. We never had even a single glimpse of what went on there. But I do remem- ber something that intrigued me then, and fascinates me to this day. There were students in my class who struggled mightily, received “Ds” on their report cards, had their parents called to school. They were “underachievers.” But in the six years of this “ability-tracked” system, not a single member of the Bluebirds ever became a Robin. And not a single Robin ever became a Bluebird. It didn’t matter what grades you received, how you scored on standardized tests, what your teachers thought of you. A Robin could be an “overachiever,” but never a Bluebird. Once a Bluebird always a Bluebird; once a Robin…

It didn’t take long before Robins were entirely out of our consciousness. We never questioned the incontrovertible fact that they really were less intelligent. We never learned what kinds of problems they might or might not have had in school, and there was certainly no sense of noblesse oblige. We somehow had joined the elect, “deserved” to be where we were, and never imagined it could be otherwise. This “socialization” is the closest I have ever been able to come to understanding being part of a caste system, and I learned my caste position well.

* * * * *

Like all things schoolish, phenomena that are not part of the curriculum often have greater long-term consequences than those that do. Or, more accurately, they are part of the curriculum of school, rather than simply in school.

As scholars have begun to note, the Flynn Effect (increases in IQ in every generation, a common feature of the 20th Century – our grandparents and great-grand- parents were all a bunch of morons, imbeciles, and idiots who couldn’t tie their own shoelaces, if we believe the raw data) seems to have come to a halt around 1990, and IQs have perhaps been declining every since, with an acceleration since 2000. The media has been quick to harp on the reality that the creativity of young people – the ability to produce something original and useful – is declining as well, likely a result of mindless “education reform”-induced conformity in thinking.

But that’s about the population of children as a whole. Maybe there are more Robins. Maybe there are more Robins because they are increasingly being poisoned – by toxic chemicals, toxic environments, and relative, if not absolute, poverty, and by toxic schools. Maybe it’s worse being a Robin than it was in my day.

But why should I care about Robins? I was “carefully taught” to pretty much ignore them and their existence, and any attempt I have had to make to reacquaint myself has required significant effort. Happily, I believe I have been up to the task.

However, wouldn’t I want to know what happened to the Bluebirds? Of course, I know in the aggregate: having been awarded false privileges as a group, we learned to value individualism, and as a group take great enjoyment in being accorded individual recognition for social accomplishment, as we have often been placed in positions to control other people’s lives to our own advantage.

Yup. That’s what we were carefully taught to understand is the essence of Bluebirdhood – we “earned it.” I got more of the same in my elite post-secondary education, enveloped in the individualist, amoral values of the larger social system where I could live on the backs of others, and was trained to become a functionary of that system. And, being a Bluebird and being good at it, I was allowed a large creative space for personal initiative, but only in the service of a system that rationed opportunities for others, i.e. Robins. So much for education being a key element in a democratic society.

I don’t want to go overboard. After all, the world has been very good to me – that’s the whole point of being a Bluebird, isn’t it? But that decision made about me in the second month of the first grade has sure given me enough to stew on all these years.

So what happens to Bluebirds? Well, now we know, and there is evidence to back it up.

Bluebirds go to college. Robins sometimes do. But I’ve rarely met a Bluebird who didn’t. And the result? According to researchers at the University of Michigan, reviewing seventy-three studies of over fourteen thousand American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009, college students score forty percent lower on measures of empathy than they did a generation ago. They are much less likely to be able to look at things from the perspective of others, or to be concerned or even have feelings of compassion for people less fortunate than themselves. They are more likely to devalue others, and, to quote one of the professors involved in the study, tend toward being “self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, and individualistic.”

Some of the faculty involved in the study have chosen easy scapegoats. Violent video games, social media, online networking are all convenient whipping boys.

Everything but the obvious. Maybe we have less empathy because we are taught to be less empathetic. We have been rewarded incessantly for being hyper- competitive in a rigged competition. We have been taught that we have succeeded solely on our own merits. We have been taught that we deserve our privileges, and those that don’t have them, well, the Robins don’t deserve them. And, as already noted, Bluebirds don’t spend much time with Robins in any case, and won’t in the future, if we can help it, and so the truth remains as hidden from us as from our Robinish counterparts. In short, Bluebirds have become mentally retarded and learning disabled.

* * * * *

Young children naturally develop a naïve empathy with the world around them. This comes from the subjective reality that the line between self and others can appear fuzzy. Where do the baby’s needs and desires end and those of the mother begin? Who exactly is nurturing whom, and where does one nature stop and the other start?

Children have an affinity for the four-legged creatures; after all, they were there once. (I would love to understand the cognitive process by which a “pre-toddler” comes to understand she isn’t a dog.) Children aren’t in nature, they are nature, though of course we lose that through our processes of socialization. If that process isn’t too severe, and we aren’t cut off from the wellsprings of our nature, we are likely to carry over some of this naïve empathy for a long time.

* * * * *

It is also natural, however, to engage in our project of life, to paraphrase the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (with whom I have great affinity, when I can figure out what he’s saying!), to persist in our individual being, and to flourish. When we feel ourselves flourishing, we feel expansive outward into the world, and it gives us pleasure. (When we are depressed, we feel diminishment, as we contract into our little selves, which is painful to our “project.”) We desire to grow into our own being, and we are propelled to action toward our lifelong desire to persist and to flourish. And, when young, we don’t even know what it is we will need, so we learn everything we can (and, sadly, are easily hoodwinked and sold a bill of goods as to what it is we will in fact require.) We are specially committed to ourselves and are easily misled. When we are young, adolescents perhaps (I think it better to think of teenagers as incipient adults), we struggle to take control, make good decisions and judgments. We make some poor ones, and make mid-point corrections as best we can.

Don’t imagine that this is the same thing as selfishness. We can take pleasure in the thriving of others who give us pleasure, and feel pain when those we love feel pain. They are essential to our feeling our lives are going well. In all these things, we battle against entropy, and experience the emotional ups and downs that accompany our “project.”

The problem is that, as a society, we choose to stop thinking about development with adolescence. It is a symptom of societal arrested development. Sigh. Or as the poet Maya Angelou once said, “Most people never grow up. They just find parking spaces.”

Back to Spinoza. We can escape this developmentally necessary self-centeredness when, at some point, we come to realize that everyone else is engaged in the same expansive mission. We see ourselves ever-more expansively, but our sense of self-importance is diminished. And we begin to understand that others matter every bit as much as we do, and learn to act accordingly. Our identities become merged with those of others. We develop a mature empathy.

I have on many occasions quoted John Holt in How Children Learn that “the test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” Once we begin to look at intelligence this way, this business about Robins and Bluebirds obviously goes out the window (as does virtually all IQ testing), and new windows open through which we can see what needs to be nurtured in our children so that they can take charge of their lives in the face of an unknown future. Previously in Life Learning Magazine, I have cited nine interactive and dynamic elements of intelligence:

  • Focus and centering
  • Drive and perseverance
  • Organization
  • Analytical ability
  • Intuition
  • Creativity
  • Capacity to learn from others
  • Flexibility, humor, and a sense of proportion
  • Courage

But there is a tenth intelligence – empathy. There are clearly certain tasks that can’t be accomplished in the world effectively without it. A team leader cannot be effective without understanding why members of the team may be acting less than optimally, and requires a sense of what motivates different individuals to excel. A mentor, teacher, or parent cannot convey skills, tools, or information productively without an inward appreciation of how a child (or adult) will be able to receive them and act. In my experience, the same is true of people in business – good business people can listen intuitively to their clients, and can match their services to meet their clients’ needs and desires. Politicians in the best sense of the term require empathy to build consensus. Empathy makes up much of the currency of talented salespeople, doctors, nurses, social workers, pastors. Humbly, may I add writers? And putting aside individual proclivities for a moment, isn’t the degree of community-wide empathy one way to assess the true value of a community?

Like other “intelligence muscles,” empathy muscles must have opportunity for exercise for them to become strong. Naïve empathy is particularly easy to exercise, as homeschoolers know so well. From work at the animal shelter to helping at the homeless mission to reading the newspaper for grandpa whose eyes have been dimmed by time, the opportunities are there and around us. Once freed from the exigencies of the day jail, or the very real need to exercise a physical and emotional freedom, sometimes in ways that are unwise, once the doors have clanked open, with the help of their parents, children can find an entire world out there that can well utilize their budding skills, talents, and empathy in helping to make a community whole, and themselves as well.

But there is so much more! For, as incipient adults, and free from the mental constraints of Bluebirdhood and Robinhood, it is possible and, to my way of thinking, even likely that mature empathy may begin to make its appearance even as the projects of our lives unfold. If the “rightness” of our class position, our social status, or our place in society is not drummed into us by other forces in the society such as “education,” it becomes possible to see our meager share of natural assets, abilities, and strengths as something to be exercised beyond our narrow (and imagined) ends. This is the active component of the tenth intelligence.

Beyond simply protecting youth from “education,” is there a way to assist in ensuring that sometime in the future the tenth intelligence can realize its true potential, so that our children do not remain “underachievers”? I think there is, and the simplest way is to make sure our young people get to spend time with people for whom the tenth intelligence is already well-developed. You can find them everywhere – I like to think of them as “giraffes,” people who, as part of their “project,” have learned to stick out their necks, look out over the larger landscape of a community and society, and take on the risk that comes with an expansive, empathetic view of themselves. In other words, those who in some way, small or large, have learned to live for others, and have learned in some small measure that living for others is a way of living for oneself. Those who are engaged in the most expansive project of all.

Every community has them. You find nurses and engineers who volunteer their time in South America. Construction workers who help build the Habitat house down the street. Hospice volunteers. Folks who take funds out of their own pockets and prepare meals at the local soup kitchen once a month. Dedicated foster parents who aren’t in it for the money. People who organize their church to support clean water projects in Africa. Individuals who work to retain indigenous cultures and cultural heritages. The reality is that you find them everywhere. All you have to do is look.

But you have to make an effort to make sure your kids (especially young teenagers) have the opportunity to rub shoulders with them. Because empathy (like many of the elements of intelligence) rubs off. Or, to use a different metaphor, it’s catching. And once you catch it, it immensely enriches your life. It dynamically interacts with the other nine elements of intelligence to make you more than you were. It is protective against “adult-onset adolescence.” And not only is it an expression of freedom, in itself it is freeing, providing entry into a larger world.

Don’t assume your pre-teens and teens will just find them on their own. You don’t do that with the need for a Spanish tutor, or a piano teacher (though kids have been known to find even these by themselves; it just isn’t common.) Giraffes are usually pretty easy to spot, as their necks stick out over the crowd. The challenge is to ensure your kids find a way to meet up with them. In my experience, it won’t be difficult, once you overcome your own shyness, and learn to advocate for the maturing intelligence of your children. You just need to learn to think more expansively, get beyond the fetters of your own school-based “education,” and reacquaint yourself with what learning should really be all about. And develop a little more persistence.

If I am successful, you may soon find yourself engaged in a whole new “project.” Perhaps you will become one of these people other teens – and parents – seek out.

* * * * *

In speaking with many others (I was somewhat surprised at how widespread my school experience was), I have since learned that, in addition to Bluebirds and Robins and sometimes Sparrows, a few schools also had a fourth group – Crows. How ironic that considered lowest of the low in schools, crows are known to be among the smartest, mutually cooperative creatures on the planet.

May you flourish. Bless.

David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer, and speaker. He is the author of “And the Skylark Sings with Me,” “Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery,” “Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love,” and “What Really Matters” (with Joyce Reed.) He lives, works, and writes in Olympia, Washington. When not learning with and from children, writing, making music, or working at his day job, he is raising funds for community development projects in South India and other good works like his foundation Friendly Water for the World (FWFW), which promotes the international use of biosand water filters.

Copyright © 2002 - 2023 Life Media

Privacy Policy

Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz Life Learning - the book Beyond School by Wendy Priesnitz

Natural Life Magazine Child's Play Magazine Natural Child Magazine

 Life Learning Magazine