Several things intersected for me during a week in September. David Brooks wrote an New York Times op-ed on the “Limits of Empathy,” I took my mother to see the “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I worked with several faculty at my school on what our students need from their education in the 21st century.

David Brook’s piece was happenstance, I was catching up on the op ed section of the paper over breakfast the morning of my museum trip. Brooks seemed to be tilting at windmills in a way. What educator or even parent would assume that empathy alone is enough to create moral action? Brooks takes issue with what he considers a lopsided embrace of the whole idea of “Walking a mile in another’s shoe” and then points to the myriad research showing how sad people are when they do really horrible things to others. As if to suggest that empathy – identifying with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another—precludes moral judgment. Or even that moral judgment and moral action can and perhaps should operate separate from empathy.

John Howard Griffin certainly had a strong moral code growing out of his Catholic faith but he didn’t have any understanding of how to act in relation to his black neighbors until he assumed a black identity and then wrote about his experiences in the Jim Crow South in his book Black Like Me.  I suspect it was unfair to Brooks to have him in my mind as I went to an exhibit that was all about a search for empathy and a desire by Rembrandt and his students to act and create based upon that newfound empathy.

In this exhibit (which closed at the end of October), the process of Rembrandt’s work was what is being depicted, displayed and celebrated. While major paintings were exhibited, they were part of a process — not unitary, stand alone works of unique inspiration. The heart of the exhibit included seven paintings — portraits of Christ — completed by Rembrandt and his students between 1643 and 1655. Each of these paintings is small and each is meant as a study to be used in the studio, not a finished major work of art.

Rembrandt and his students

Rembrandt wanted to break with the tradition of depicting Christ as a perfect, god in human form who just happened to also have very Roman features. He asked Jewish neighbors to sit for him in his studio as he imagined different moments in Christ’s life — breaking bread with his friends, teaching and preaching, contemplating his death in Gethsemane, the moments before the horrors of his crucifixion. How would these moments be expressed by a human Christ?

In choosing Jewish models, Rembrandt seems to want to assert the otherness — not fair haired or blue eyed — of Christ. In choosing human models Rembrandt connects Christ in a much more intimate way with the viewers of the art — his humanness breaks down the divide the divinity in earlier depictions creates. Rembrandt and his students seek to understand Christ’s feelings and translate them through oil paint for the artists’ contemporary audience. In this search for fellow feeling, Rembrandt transforms for all time the way that Jesus is understood. (All of the above is a very brief summary of what I learned from the many explanations the exhibit provided for the works on display.)

A second theme in the exhibit is Rembrandt’s approach to working with his students. Many of the paintings and sketches in the exhibit by his students. Typically, masters had their students create copies, Rembrandt encouraged them to extend his originals and add their own understanding. This fascinated me as I compared his work with that of his students.

There are numerous sketches of Christ’s appearance on the road to Emmaus. In all of them Rembrandt is exploring all the possible ways for revelation to occur and for the disciples to react. Towards the end of the exhibit is a major painting by one of Rembrandt’s students on this subject. In this painting the light is behind one of the disciples and actually best illuminates the faces of the two servants who are oblivious to what is happening. Jesus has no special glow, no halo. In his hands, he has bread he is in the process of tearing with a very quiet motion, almost absent-mindedly. One disciple, with his back mostly to us, has his hand to his face as if to say, “This man reminds me of Jesus.” The backlit disciple is more active and his understanding more immediate but still quiet and without alarm.

Education is continuous exploration

This kind of continuous exploration, reinterpretation and flat-out invention are at the heart of good education. This was our process recently in my World History class. Students had begun with building basic information on the ways in which human geographers study and understand human interactions with their environment. We asked questions such as “What is Asia?” and “Why were the Thule Inuit successful in settling Greenland while the Scandinavians were not?” We extended our study of the past with readings on famine, hunger and population in the 21st century.

Our resident Earth Literacy teacher joined us to push students to consider their own definitions of success in civilizational terms and whether agricultural choices have any meaning for us today. These were wide ranging discussions intended to push students to examine their own assumptions about human geography and the choices humans make. They weren’t being asked to act upon their ideas, to make hard moral choices but rather to consider the choices made by others -to limit family size, to have another child in the face of horrible poverty, to bring cattle into an environment never intended for them, to choose agriculture, to interpret history as progress, to devote Muslim scholarship to creating a garden of North Africa.

While there were wrong answers to some of the questions my students asked of each other, there were few single right ones. This first grappling with ambiguity, with dichotomous and opposed “right answers” was unsettling. I suppose Rembrandt’s students and patrons found his new depictions of Christ troubling. (Certainly, one of Rembrandt’s students was censured for breaking with the iconic portrayal of Christ for a portrait not unlike that of several of Rembrandt’s).

Later in the year my students will translate their thought experiments, their analysis and even their empathy-seeking into action. Having a better understanding of the forms of expression and thought and having had practice taking those forms and extending them, my students will make moral choices, but these choices will be shaped by a better understanding of the assumptions and premises upon which their decisions and actions stand. Just as John Howard Griffin knew how to act upon his values because of his experience of empathy, so too will my students.

Head of Christ, Rembrandt (c. 1648-56)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Reproduced under fair use provision

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