Teaching Empathy Through The Humanities

Max Warburg was a fairly typical 11 year old boy. He grew up in Boston and loved playing sports, swimming, biking, skiing, and especially sailing. Some of his family’s happiest memories involved being out on the water for hours together. One day while out riding his bike, Max fell, and he ended up in the ER. As it turned out, his life would never be the same. As they treated Max for a split spleen, they discovered that he had leukemia. Surgeries, treatments, and many ups and downs followed. Through his terrible ordeal, Max never gave up hope and tried his best to keep a positive attitude in the face of an awful disease. Although he fought as hard as he could, Max died in his mother’s arms and holding his father’s hand on March 5, 1991. One of his parents friends said at the time “Max amazed me. He was so brave. Children amaze me. I am amazed by the courage of children.”

Max’s determination, courage, and never-ending hope in the face of a terrible disease inspired all who knew him. To honor Max’s story and to encourage empathy and other youths to reach their maximum potential and not take anything for granted, Max’s parents, Stephanie and Jonathan Warburg, founded the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum. Stephanie and Jonathan worked with the Boston Public Schools to develop and create the curriculum, written especially for 6th graders. After learning about Max’s story and reading a novel that focuses on courage and empathy, for the culminating activity of the program, each student writes an essay on the topic of “Courage in My Life.” Though the students’ stories vary widely, the common theme of courage unites them all. The local students’ essays are entered into a contest, where a panel of judges reads each of the essays. The winning essays are published in an annual essay anthology. What started as something that happened only in the Boston Public Schools has spread, and now schools from all over the country and the world participate. And this year, for the first time, so will the 6th graders at Brimmer and May.

At Brimmer, we believe the study of the Humanities, which literally means the study of what it means to be human, is an important avenue to teach empathy. Last week during our opening meetings, Mrs. Guild told the faculty that when you explore literature and stories specifically, you have a key to teaching empathy. And during her keynote address at those meetings, Professor Kay Young, a former Brimmer and May teacher and Professor of Literature at UC Santa Barbara, told us “the basis of empathy is imagining other minds and placing yourself in their place, and, as you do so, reflecting on the meaning of life. It makes it real and tangible, and the study of literature trains our brain to do just that.”

So whether it is writing about courage after hearing Max’s story as our 6th graders will do, or walking in the footsteps of Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank as the 8th grade will do during their study of the Holocaust, or exploring the life of Prior Walter, a man suffering from AIDS in New York City during the height of the epidemic, as the 11th grade did last year when they read Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, our hope is that, through your studies here, you are not only making strides as writers and readers, but also as people. We hope that not only will you be able to analyze the literature, stories, and plays that you read, hear, and see, but that you will also take them to heart; place yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that those stories will be like seeds that will grow within you. Like Kushner, I too believe there are angels in America. I believe Max Warburg was one, and that this theater is full of them right now. Each and everyone of you has the potential to make an impact with kindness and empathy, and be the angel is someone’s life. I hope this year, you will do just that.

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