112/365 Play. Empathy. Democracy.

Playing the Building: Installation by David Byrne
I’ve been slowly working my way through Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. (Cataloged highlights from Kindle here.) The text began with much read-noddign on my part. “Yup,” my brain said, “She thinks what I think.”

Because of this, much of the early chapters didn’t feel challenging. Nussbaum was presenting the arguments I find myself making to others all the time. I needed her to either challenge my constructs or deepen my understandings. I saw the merits in her arguments, so I stuck with her.

Happening upon chapter six “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts,” I’m pleased I’ve kept reading. While the argument for play, creativity, fun, exploration and all their adjoining pieces is a familiar one, Nussbaum does something I’d not before witnessed.

She makes the argument for the importance of play and imagination in strengthening a democracy.

Claiming “Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone,” Nussbaum calls in play and imagination as skills to be prized in helping to build the empathy necessary for a democracy in which a plurality of views coexist and build a society.

We cannot get to empathy without imagination.

Democratic equality brings vulnerability…Play teaches people to be capable of living with others without control; it connects the experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder, rather than to crippling anxiety.

Nussbaum calls for empathy education here. In fact, she opens her chapter quoting education authors calling for the same thing in 1916 and 1971.

I’ve made the call for empathy myself when speaking with groups of teachers. It’s embedded within the Ethic of Care. The pieces new here are the relationship of empathy to democracy and the use of play as a building block for empathy.

If I am not given way to imagine, I’ll never find the space to imagine how you are feeling or see our lives as interconnected. If I never see those lives as interconnected nor your thoughts and feelings as relevant to me, I’ll not take them into account when I think about things like school funding, civil rights, taxation, environmental issues…basically, every idea that intermingles with democracy.

I’ve valued and spoken to the value of each of these pieces – play, empathy, democracy. I’ve not had the occasion to consider them as interdependent and one leading to another. Such a relationship rearranges the furniture in my brain a bit and helps me to find a way to structure a call to action when next I find myself in front of a group of educators.

One thought on “112/365 Play. Empathy. Democracy.

  1. This is an argument I have never before heard. Your writing here has made me add this book to my to-read list. I need to think more about this argument but my first instinct is to completely agree. Free choice time (essentially play time) for my first graders is also a time for them to learn some problem solving skills and work things out together. I need to think more about how that works based on this idea.

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