Do private schools lead to less empathy?

But if a person does their schooling in an expensive private school, plays sport against other private schools, goes on to university with primarily selective and private school graduates, gets a professional job, they might get to know fewer people from different backgrounds, and are less likely to empathise with them.

- commenter Bruce, 23 February

In race relations analysis, this is known as the ‘contact hypothesis’ – that mixing will lead to mutual understanding and improved relations. Under fairly restrictive conditions contact can achieve the desired goals. But absent those conditions contact can have the opposite effect, confirming bad impressions and worsening ill-feeling.

So we can’t be sure that a toffs meets trailer trash school policy would have a positive effect on mutual relations. The poor as an abstract entity may win more empathy than the poor in person. And the rich as a snobbish, privileged presence in the same classroom may inspire more resentment than than the rich as a distant social class.

Whatever the possible outcomes of shared classrooms, analysis of social attitudes by school background suggests that generally where someone went to school doesn’t seem to have a large influence, as the following figures show (all vertical axes show percentages).

Government help for unemployed

Source: Australian Election Survey 2007


Source: Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005


Source: Australian Election Survey 2007

People who went to government schools are both slightly more generous and slightly harsher on the unemployed, perhaps showing greater need for assistance and awareness of its pathologies, but not holding substantially different views. The groups also hold similar views on income gaps between rich and poor (though with the slight difference in the expected direction) and assistance for single parents.

No matter how diverse the classrooms of our youth, we are only likely to meet in them a small percentage of the social types we will come across in our lives, and a tiny percentage of the social types potentially deserving of our empathy. It is very unlikely that attending a private school would diminish their students’ lifetime capacity to learn about and feel for other people.

15 Responses to “Do private schools lead to less empathy?

  • 1
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    February 23rd, 2010 22:12

    (1) Scholarships. Private schools have them to increase the quality of intake, but also to broaden the experience of their students.
    (2) As a matter of observation, top private schools are very ethnically and culturally diverse in intake.

  • 2
    Rajat Sood
    February 24th, 2010 09:09

    FWIW, I have to say that living in St Kilda and sometimes catching the 96 tram has made me far more inclined to take(ex-CIS) Peter Saunders’s view a step further and allow druggies and alcos who create a menace or commit petty crimes to ‘declare dependence’ on the government (as an alternative to the jail sentence I would otherwise impose), have their benefits controlled and be accommodated somewhere far far away. We used to have institutions for such people, but the institutions have all been turned into housing estates. I suggest the Sunraysia district where those that want to rehabilitate themselves can clear the gunk out of their systems by picking fruit.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    February 24th, 2010 09:53

    Inner city lowlife aren’t doing anything for my empathy either. But caveat emptor I knew they were a problem before I moved to the inner city.

  • 4
    Rajat Sood
    February 24th, 2010 10:16

    Clearly my naivety stemmed from going to an elite private school followed by a sandstone university followed by a white collar job… If only I had grown up in Broady like Eddie Maguire, I might have had the good sense to buy in Toorak.

  • 5
    Son of the Ratpack
    February 24th, 2010 11:37

    Rajat, since you continue to live in St Kilda, it can’t be too big a burden for you.

    “As a matter of observation, top private schools are very ethnically and culturally diverse in intake.”

    Yes, they take people of English background and lowland Scottish background. You can’t be more diverse than that.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    February 24th, 2010 12:01

    “Yes, they take people of English background and lowland Scottish background. ”

    Full of ambitious Asian students, and other ethnic groups that give education a high priority.

  • 7
    M
    February 24th, 2010 12:04

    Reminds me of the West Wing quote about how diverse New Hampshire is because it is 30% Franco-American.

    In my experience the people with least empathy for the truly poor are working and lower-middle class people. In their perspective they work hard, they pay tax, they don’t have much money left over and the government gives all these hand-outs to druggies and single mums.

  • 8
    Son of the Ratpack
    February 24th, 2010 12:12

    “other ethnic groups that give education a high priority.”

    Is that code for “Jews”?

    And, yes, I know all of this; I was just setting some bait.

    I don’t doubt at all that the products of private schools have empathy for the poor. If there’s one thing those schools know how to impart, it’s a sense of noblesse oblige.

    And M of course is quite right.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    February 24th, 2010 13:52

    I didn’t have any group in mind, but obviously the Jewish community historically tops this list. Indeed, an interesting group for this debate. On the census figures, private school enrolment share is about twice the national average. The census private school enrolment count and Jewish school enrolments nearly match, suggesting relatively high religious segregation. Yet the Jewish community also makes a contribution to the broader Australian society that is way out of proportion to its small numbers.

  • 10
    Baz (the ordinary Aussie)
    February 24th, 2010 14:25

    In my view, diversity for diversity’s sake is over rated.

    I went to a private school, played rugby, went to a sand stone university, hold a white collar job, and hell, I am happy not to mix with the bogans. And if I were a parent, I think I would want the same, and I certainly would be annoyed if Government were to intervene and encourage elsewise (that wouldn’t be very libertarian.

    On a similar subject (the joys of diversity), I heard a world reknown economist speak today. First time I have heard geopolitcal concerns in a mainstream lecture explicitly mentioning ‘Islam’ as an investment risk. Interestingly, it was mentioned that the Chinese and the Russians are actively encapsulating this risk into their investment decisions, and this is leading to a down weight on European portfolios.

  • 11
    Son of the Ratpack
    February 24th, 2010 15:40

    Obviously the ruggar buggars are exceptions in the empathy stakes. But they are a sect all on their own. Interesting about the Chinese and Russians. They might shift their investments to that emerging giant economy, India. No muzzies there.

  • 12
    Rebecca_23
    February 24th, 2010 16:17

    SOR – classic! But perhaps direct even for this PC dispiser!

    Anyway, while there is some merit in the oft repeated lines:

    ‘don’t let a bad apple spoil a barrel’;

    there is no doubt, that as a cohort against other groups, say buddahists, Hindus, Christians, Aethiests etc, that Moslems represent a greater than normative risk. A rational investor would want to price this in to any investment.

    So while ‘pollies talk’, money walks…and perhaps the investment decisions, perhaps even those of authoritarian governments that baz mentions provide a glimpse into people’s true assesments, no matter the level of ‘emphathy’ they may profess to hold.

  • 13
    Cathy
    February 24th, 2010 17:09

    SOR, I don’t like to let a few facts get in the way of a good story, but you do realize that India actually has one of the largest Muslim populations of any nation on earth?

  • 14
    Son of the Ratpack
    February 24th, 2010 17:34

    Cathy, I do know that. Second largest Muslim population in the world. And they are a touch more troublesome than the ones in Europe, on the body count at least. (Not that the Hindus are any better.) Next time I will make the irony more obvious.

  • 15
    jack strocchi
    February 25th, 2010 09:14

    One way of improving empathy between classes and races would be conscription. This obviously works well in ultra-diverse Israel. And the Marine corps takes in alot of different nationalities and welds them into a community.

    But I don’t think that Catherine Deveny et al will be calling for it to be re-introduced anytime soon.

    Post-modern liberals tend to fool themselves before searching further afield for other sucker punch-lines.