Playground empathy

Commenting on the proposed French plan that would require every fifth grader in that county to learn the life story of oneof the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, Jessica Helfand has a few words for those who suggest it's all much, too much for children.

Whose discretion are we talking about?

One of the great ironies of contemporary culture is the degree to which such pro-forma warnings read as largely invisible: they’re the on-air equivalent of the flight-attendant demonstrating the proper use of the oxygen mask in the event of an emergency landing. “Viewer Discretion Advised” tells us we’ve been warned: if we’re traumatized, it’s our own damned fault.

...Curiously, the notion that making history human would devalue such learning seems odd, if not entirely oxymoronic: if we read and analyze fiction to come to a better understanding of our own humanity, why would we not derive similar lessons from our own history? We would no sooner consider reading (or for that matter, watching) King Lear with a “Viewer Discretion Advised” warning than we would imagine Wolf Blitzer asking us to remove our children from the premises before watching The Situation Room on CNN.

Empathy is an efficient teacher. It doesn't waste a hurt. So if compassion requires us to feel something toward the object of our thoughts, it's just as well that that lesson be drawn from history as well as literature. True enough. But I wonder as does Helfand if that's what's really at issue here. I wonder to what extent empathy has become an unrecognized emotion in the lives of adults.