A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on three graduate students at Rutgers University who, for the last year, have donated all their income except student stipends to charity (Chapman). It seems phenomenal, in this period of economic hard times, that young people could be so philanthropically inclined, yet there is evidence that altruism is increasingly gaining notice on campuses across the nation.
Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is a program devoted to studying the mental and social basis for compassion and altruism among human beings. The program employs a creative collaboration between scientists and practitioners of meditation, such as Buddhist contemplatives. The mission is to explore “testable cognitive and affective training exercises through which individuals and societies can learn to employ these complex [altruistic] behaviors (Stanford).
Not long ago I attended a lecture by best-selling author and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West, held at the university where I most recently taught. West extolled the necessity of acting from the heart, if we as a people are to achieve not just greatness, but survival for our country. Asking ourselves how we can help the poor and needy is the only appropriate behavior for a nation that purports to be the most powerful in the world, according to West. The college audience to which West addressed his remarks was more than receptive to his ideas.
Actually, altruism may have other benefits for its practitioners than just the realization that they are helping others. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley claim that Darwin’s theory of natural selection may have been misinterpreted, and that in fact, Darwin believed “humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits” (Sheehy).
At UC Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center is a hub for research on compassion and altruism. One of the Center’s projects is the raising of “emotionally literate” children, a program created by Christine Carter, the Center’s executive director. Research done by Carter and others is used to develop practical aids to child-rearing in this vein (TSI-SI News Service).
One can only imagine a world in which all parents focused on raising compassionate children, and all universities sponsored programs on ways to spread altruism throughout society.
Chapman, Paige, “3 Grad Students at Rutgers Pledge Lifetime of Paychecks to Lifesaving Charities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2001, Vol. LVII, No. 24.
Sheehy, Gail, “The Secret to Longer Life May Surprise You,” The Orlando Sentinel, Wednesday, December 1, 2010.
Stanford University, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Retrieved February 22, 2011 from http://www.neuroscience.stanford.edu
TSI-SI News Service, “The Science of Altruism and the Physical Basis for Compassion. Retrieved February 22, 2011 from http://ts-si.org/neuroscience/21545-the-science-of-altruism