Home' Teacher : August 2011 Contents Recent discoveries in neurophysiology,
alongside not-so -rec ent research in child
development, force us to rethink the long-
held belief that human beings are, by nature,
aggressive, materialistic and self-interested
or at least utilitarian. The view that we are
a fundamentally empathic species has pro -
found and far-reaching consequences.
Something that happened on the even-
ing of 24 December, 1914, in Flanders when
the First World War was entering its fifth
month, illustrates the view that at its very
core humanity is defined by kindness, for-
giveness and the understanding of others.
Millions of German a nd British soldiers
were bedded down in makeshift trenches
latticed across the Flemish count ryside.
In many places the opposing armies were
dug in within 30 to 50 yards of each other
and within shouting distance. The condi-
tions were hellish. The bitter cold winter
air chilled to the bone. The trenches were
waterlogged. Soldiers shared their quarters
with rats and vermin. Lacking adequate
latrines, the stench of human excrement was
everywhere. The men slept upright to avoid
the muck and sludge. Dead soldiers littered
the no -m an’s land between opposing forces,
the bodies left to rot and decompose within
yards of their still-living comrades who were
unable to collect them for burial.
As dusk fell over the battlefields on 24
December, the Germans began lighting can-
dles on the thousands of small Christmas
trees that had been sent to the front to lend
some comfort to the men. Then they began
to sing Christmas carols, first ‘Stille Nacht’
– ‘Silent Night’ – and then a stream of other
songs. The British soldiers were stunned.
One soldier, gazing in disbelief at the enemy
lines, said the blazed trenches looked ‘like
the footlights of a theatre.’
The British soldiers responded with
applause, at first tentatively, then with exu-
bera nce. Then they began to sing Christmas
carols with equally robust applause from
their German foes. The soldiers took turns,
singing, the carols echoing back and forth
across the trenches.
Eventually these men actually left their
trenches and came together in their thou-
sands to share life stories, cigarettes, cakes
and photos of family. They joked about the
absurdity of war.
If soldiers in Flanders fields could show empathy, so can we
18 teacher august 2011
new ReseaRch indicates that empathy is leaRned. all the moRe Reason,
says John hendRy, that we ought to teach it in ouR schools.
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