The Platinum Rule: Building Empathy & Curiosity in High School Classrooms

See slideshow.

Print handouts.

“Treat others as they would like to be treated.”

Like most rough and ready pieces of moral philosophy, the platinum rule has its benefits and its limitations.

I spent the first day of my feminist course discussing it in some depth with my students. We do a lot of work with personal stories so I wanted to explore ways of being empathetic and understanding across a range of identities and experiences. 

As their teacher, I was concerned that in trying to encourage my students to empathize with what they read, I would instead encourage some students to appropriate the experiences of others. Often this leads to students saying things like, “That’s just like what happened to me when…” The result is that the experience of the other is subsumed and erased by the experience of the reader. Instead of deepening her connections, the reader has deepened her own self-involvement.

Often my classroom dynamics echo this mentality in ways I don’t like. It’s almost always the students speaking from a place of privilege who make this move in my classes: the rich student-leader, the white athlete, the quick-witted joker, the confident speaker. These are the students who have more trouble being curious about what other students are thinking and feeling. Without quite meaning to, they take the experiences of others and personalize them. The privileged student feels a hollow, fleeting sense of solidarity and other students feel misunderstood or short-changed. 

Discussing the platinum rule can diffuse these potentially toxic power dynamics in your classroom by giving students language about the limitations of empathy. 

“You might think you know just how another person feels, but maybe you don’t. Maybe you can just wonder about it.” 

It’s the difference between witnessing someone else’s sadness and claiming it as your own. 

In academic jargon, the platinum rule is often part of “asymmetrical reciprocity.” Here is a great academic article about it by Iris Marion Young. It’s hard-going for high school students, but I pulled out some parts to create an accessible lesson. 

Young’s examples, “I would rather be dead than crippled,” “Going Native,” and “Getting it” illustrate the pitfalls of the golden rule and show students why considering the perspectives of others is so vital in building community.

Here is the slideshow with the lesson as well as a handout with three examples of when “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” rather than letting others speak for themselves created problems. It could be good for an advisory period or in a class that requires reading a lot of different perspectives, especially on complex topics that activate the power dynamics of race, class, or gender unfolding in your classroom. 

About the Author Georgina Emerson

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