“University of Empathy” features prominently on a promotional T-shirt sold by the German NGO “Sea Watch”. Founded in response to the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, “Sea Watch” conducts search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. However, the T-shirt not only appeals to the function of “Sea Watch” as a life-saving institution, it also promotes the organization as a body of emotional education that teaches empathy. Thus, it directs our attention to the question of where empathy “comes from” and which social, cultural and political contexts have promoted, trained, shaped, cultivated and inscribed empathic practices in collective action and institutional behavior. The claim put forward by „Sea Watch“ and other contemporary institutions (such as so-called schools or trainings of empathy) invites us to historicize empathy, including how it has been understood and taught over time. This involves asking which actors and institutions promoted, cultivated, and integrated empathy into formal and informal educational programs and practices. Furthermore, it draws our attention to the more general questions of when and how empathy became to be considered an appropriate response to perceived social and cultural needs and was thus translated from philosophical, religious or moral tractates into more popular realms, educational practices and day-to-day social behavior and action.
This international conference explores the relationships between empathy, education and society. It focuses on Europe as well as its transnational connections in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perceiving empathy as the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and to share his or her feelings and experiences, the conference pursues two goals. On the one hand, it strives to examine the social and cultural institutions that – following what Ute Frevert has called “schools of emotions” – functioned as “schools of empathy” and to question their effects on community building as well as on social mechanisms of inclusion or exclusion. On the other hand, we aim to analyze the groups and individuals that served as “educators” as well as the educational practices they developed. This involves asking for the various meanings attributed to empathy at different points in time. Furthermore, it means asking when, why and how empathy was integrated into certain (e.g. gendered) educational canons and came to be seen as a promising means to improve professional behavior in specific fields or to redress social issues like poverty, racism, anti-Semitism or anti-immigrant feelings. By historicizing empathy, this conference seeks to better understand the power and action-guiding potential ascribed to it over time by different “educators,” such as theologians, scientists, doctors, philanthropists, social reformers or psychologists. Importantly, by analyzing the social and political scope of empathy, the conference explores its relation to power. This includes asking if and how “educators” privileged certain groups of human beings at the expense of others.
Focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the conference concentrates on a period that saw not only the increasing significance and expansion of empathy, for example in the context of Human Rights debates, but also the unprecedented growth, formalization, professionalization and differentiation of education in Western countries and beyond. This included frameworks on local and regional levels, but also on the levels of nation-states and empires. In particular, we aim to study the intersection of empathy and education in key sites such as the family, educational institutions, professional training, science and social reform as well as political movements.