“So, how did you get AIDS?”
It’s not a question I had ever expected to be asked. When it was uttered, I was sitting on the stage of my high school’s auditorium, surrounded by other students who were participating in a production of Rent. Our director had set aside the day’s rehearsal to focus on character building, and was asking us a variety of questions that would help us flush out our portrayals of these vibrant, complex individuals.
My castmates seemed to register the same momentary shock that I had experienced, but before long the answers began to flow: unclean needles, an ex-girlfriend, just not being as safe as we could have been. Our director nodded at each response before moving on to her next question.
Less than a year earlier, I had been sitting in an AP US History class, watching a documentary about the AIDS epidemic. The film chronicled, among other things, the presumptions that many people had about individuals who were HIV-positive-- most commonly, that they had brought the disease on themselves through supposedly wrong or immoral choices-- and how these beliefs impacted the government’s response to the outbreak. After we finished the film, I was asked to complete a thesis-driven writeup in response to what the video had covered, using a minimum of two historical sources.
Both of these events were learning experiences; both left me with a deeper appreciation for this chapter in America’s history and a stronger awareness of how it still impacts our world today. However, these different methods-- putting myself in another person’s position versus writing a detached, analytical essay-- point to a divide in how theater and academics typically encourage people to interact with the world.
Most academic settings are focused on establishing critical thinking skills-- that is, the ability to analyze an issue in order to form a judgement about it. This method relies on objectivity and distance, as students are encouraged to maintain a sense of emotional detachment while forming their conclusions.
Alternatively, theater relies on what I like to call empathetic thinking. In order to create a convincing performance, actors need to approach their characters from a place of acceptance. Their job may not necessarily be to defend their character, but they do need to achieve a base level of understanding in order to comprehend why their character takes the actions they do. Actors get up close and personal, striving to experience their character’s subjective feelings as they literally walk a mile in their shoes. And as most actors will tell you, it’s difficult to finish a run of a show without having established a sense of respect-- if not genuine affection-- for the character they portrayed.
It’s important to note that neither critical nor empathetic thinking is inherently superior to the other; there are times when empathy is essential, and then there are situations in which objective distance may be more helpful. With that said, I do believe that young people would greatly benefit if academic institutions started to value empathetic thinking as much as critical thinking.
As Rachel Chavkin stated in her recent Tony acceptance speech, life is a team sport. There is an increasing need, both in academia and in the workforce, for people to work closely and collaboratively-- and this work gets so much easier when people are able to exercise emotional intelligence and empathy. Critical thinking may be a crucial part of solving problems, but your ability to address an issue is irrelevant if you are unable to work with others to implement your solution.
The purpose of education is, arguably, to give young people the tools they need to interact with the world in a meaningful, effective, and intelligent way. If social cohesion and cooperation are fundamental aspects of the world we live in, then it is imperative that schools set their students up for success by encouraging them to practice empathetic thinking.
While I support the notion that everyone should be exposed to theater throughout their lives, I want to highlight the idea that educators of all varieties can integrate empathy-instilling theatrical practices into academic contexts without forcing their students to put on a play. For example, teachers can have students do research and then write from the perspective of a historical or fictional character, or have them embody perspectives with which they might disagree in the context of a debate or simulation. Even within STEM subjects, teachers should feel empowered to have students discuss their processes and explain the steps that lead them to their conclusion in order to contextualize their responses.
Encouraging kids to see their school work and their classmates through a more empathetic lens will both personalize the subject matter and help them gain a deeper appreciation for people who may think and feel differently from them. When we repeatedly and regularly encourage students to put themselves in other people’s shoes, we reinforce practices of empathetic thinking that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Emotional intelligence and empathy are just as essential to living a healthy, meaningful, and successful life as critical thinking is. If we want to impart these skills onto a new generation of students, we would be wise to use the foundations of theater as our first step.