Compassionate pedagogy

The politicisation of emotion and the degradation of higher education

30th November 2023
Joanna Williams

Compassionate pedagogy is the latest fashion in higher education. But it is an emotionally manipulative and censorious practice that is antithetical to education, argues Joanna Williams.

Compassionate pedagogy is in vogue in universities across the western world, with many institutions now carrying statements endorsing this teaching method. Making compassion the focus of higher education raises questions about the practice of teaching and learning, the nature of knowledge, and the significance of academic freedom. It asks us to consider what it means to be a student and the purpose of a university. Here, I critically evaluate the rise of compassionate pedagogy and consider the ideas that have driven its development. I argue we need to challenge the compassion consensus.

What is compassionate pedagogy?

Interest in compassionate pedagogy emerged in 2017 but the practice took off following the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak and the turn to online teaching. This is no coincidence. Compassionate pedagogy is a response to the belief that students and academics are dealing with trauma, distress and mental health problems – a perception enhanced by the pandemic and lockdowns. However, the assumption of widespread suffering among university staff and students was already well-established. Suffering is deemed particularly acute for minority identity groups that experience prejudice but all staff and students are assumed to find meeting deadlines and completing assessments or research projects stressful.

One British university describes compassionate pedagogy as a way of teaching that ‘notices distress and disadvantage for all students and staff and actively seeks to reduce these barriers to learning’. Compassionate lecturers demonstrate empathy and kindness by using ‘non-confrontational’ teaching methods and being flexible with assessments and deadlines. According to a university in Canada, compassionate pedagogy involves ‘teaching and learning practices that are flexible, equitable, and sustainable’. Another British university explains that compassionate pedagogy is ‘about ensuring that our teaching and interactions with students and colleagues are based on kindness, and followed through by actions and practices that alleviate suffering and promote wellbeing.’ This extends to the curriculum: the compassionate lecturer has a decolonised and diverse curriculum as well as providing advance warning of any content that might be deemed offensive.

Contemporary use of the phrase compassionate pedagogy can be traced to a 2011 paper by the US-based scholar, Richie Neil Hao. Hao defines ‘critical compassionate pedagogy’ as an approach to teaching that is critical of ‘institutional and classroom practices that ideologically place under-served students at disadvantaged positions.’ His suggestion is that universities enact a white, western, male, neoliberal approach to education that is hostile to already disadvantaged students. In order to challenge this, Hao ‘urges teachers to be self-reflective of their actions through compassion as a daily commitment.’(1)

According to British education professor Paul Gibbs, compassionate pedagogy involves the ‘weaving of diverse cultures and beliefs into a way of recognizing that diversity through a common good offers a way of preparing students and staff for a complex and anxious world.’(2) Gibbs combines a psychological understanding of students as mentally vulnerable with a political emphasis upon diversity. Although the phrase ‘compassionate pedagogy’ is a recent addition to the higher education landscape, it is premised upon ideas that have developed over several decades.

The marketisation of higher education

Compassionate pedagogy is often presented as a response to the marketisation of higher education. A paper for the UK’s Society for Research into Higher Education notes, ‘the “compassion turn” in higher education […] has arisen in response to the damaging effects to students and staff of neoliberal HE policy.’(3) Compassion is pitched against excellence and, in particular, ‘the unrelenting focus on specific measures of excellence, league tables and rankings’ that narrow ‘the parameters and potential of higher education.’(4) In contrast to this souless image of higher education, compassionate pedagogy urges students and teachers, ‘to become a humanising voice which listens to and hears the realities of the marginalised and excluded.’

While there are certainly real problems with today’s universities, compassionate pedagogy transforms material issues into emotional states. Tuition fees, for example, are assumed to be a mental health problem – a source of stress – more than a practical, financial problem. Likewise, arguments for reducing staff workload are premised on high levels of stress, depression and anxiety rather than improving the quality of teaching and research. It is only in a culture that is predisposed to see individuals as mentally vulnerable that marketisation is posed specifically as a threat to mental health.

Critical pedagogy

Despite the rhetoric, compassionate pedagogy is not simply a humane response to the marketisation of universities. It derives from a particular critique of teaching in higher education which can be traced to the work of the Catholic radical theologian and educator, Paolo Friere (1921-97) who taught literacy to adults in the Brazilian favellas. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) Friere critiques what he terms the ‘banking model’ of education, in which passive students receive deposits of knowledge from their teachers. Freire criticised the hierarchy inherent within traditional teaching methods and sought to replace the teacher/student relationship with a dialogue in which both parties engage in teaching and learning.(5) In this way, education comes to be perceived as a revolutionary act: classroom interactions make power structures explicit and necessitate their collective transformation.

Although he based his theories on experiences specific to the Brazilian favellas, the political implications of Freire’s work captured the imagination of western educationalists. Despite teaching often privileged students in wealthy institutions, the political assumption that some students were oppressed and needed liberating through education gained ground.(6) Radical scholars such as bell hooks and Henry Giroux were inspired by Freire’s work. Giroux coined the phrase ‘critical pedagogy’ to denote teaching that promotes democracy in the classroom.

Compassion was central to much of Freire’s work. In breaking down classroom hierarchies and reinventing teaching as a mutual relationship, the theologian expected teachers and students to care for and ‘walk with’ each other.(4) Freire’s enduring influence is apparent in the statements universities use to describe their approach to compassionate pedagogy. Baylor University in Texas, for example, explains that ‘educators are committed to the success of historically marginalized student subgroups by countering oppressive pedagogies. […]The goal is for educators and students to collaborate in creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning for all.’

Ultimately, the emphasis on democracy in the classroom means students are effectively ‘liberated’ from being taught. Teachers, by definition, have knowledge that students lack. Denying this risks robbing university lecturers of their intellectual authority and denying students access to powerful knowledge.(7) This can reinforce social inequalities as the more privileged are better able to negotiate access to knowledge outside of the classroom.

Freire’s thinking influenced not just pedagogy but, perhaps even more fundamentally, epistemology. Writing around the same time as Freire, British sociologist of education Micheal Young, in line with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, argued that the selection of ‘academic’ knowledge for school and university curricula reflects the tastes and interests of the powerful.(8) Knowledge that is accredited with certificates is not, therefore, neutral or objective, but inherently political. The imposition of an elite perspective, via the curriculum and under the guise of intellectual neutrality, was described by Bourdieu as an act of ‘symbolic violence’.(9) However, as Michael Young critiques in his more recent work, rejecting knowledge selected by the powerful often means rejecting powerful knowledge – scientific and cultural work that could transform lives.(7)

Critical pedagogy starts from the assumption that knowledge is political. Texts are judged according to the identity of their creators; work by dead white males is assumed to reinforce existing power relations. Radical educators argue the university curriculum needs to be ‘decolonised’ in order to give voice to the perspectives of historically marginalised groups. The Society for Research into Higher Education explains that compassionate pedagogy should make people ‘aware of their, and others, oppressions and develop the will to act’ as well as ‘cultivating hope and symbolic resistance’.(3) Rather than education as a celebration of the best that humanity has thought and said, it becomes a reflection of identity-based interests. As University College London makes clear, ‘Selecting learning resources and situating learning in a manner that reflects the differing voices, perspectives and experiences of those generating and consuming knowledge are a fundamental part of compassionate pedagogy.’

It seems that in rejecting canonical knowledge on the grounds that it is political, compassionate pedagogues do not strive for objectivity, viewpoint diversity or political neutrality. Instead, they seek to introduce an opposing, more overtly political, practice, as the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education makes clear: ‘we are committed to the theory and practice of an education for social justice’. Turning education to the purpose of social justice means students are denied access to traditional curricular knowledge. Lecturers, meanwhile, are instructed in both what and how to teach.

Mental health

Compassionate pedagogy also emerges from theories of ‘inclusive teaching’. Inclusion, in an educational context, was initially used to describe the integration of children with physical disabilities or learning difficulties into mainstream schools. The massification of higher education made this a concern for universities at the same time that thinking about disability moved from a ‘medical model’ which focused on what disabled people could not do, to a social model that argues it is not people who are disabled but environments that are disabling.

The shift towards inclusive teaching has gone hand in hand with an awareness that greater numbers of students have a disability. Latest statistics suggest that 15 per cent of students in the UK have at least one disability. Inclusive teaching puts the onus on lecturers to adopt teaching methods that presume students will have disabilities, without students having to declare their own particular needs. This means teaching as if all students have a disability, for example, by making learning outcomes and assessment criteria explicit; swapping books for short online articles; organising class discussions or other interactive activities rather than lectures and assessing students through group presentations rather than examinations.

This dumbed-down form of instruction is promoted as benefiting all students. University College London makes clear that: ‘Teaching inclusively enables all students, whatever their circumstances, to enjoy the fullest possible learning experience.’ Baylor University notes, ‘Compassionate practices benefit all students, and some benefit exponentially.’

One reason for the adoption of inclusive pedagogy is the rise in students reported to be suffering with mental health problems. Each year, statistics suggest ever-greater numbers of young people are struggling with their mental health. The UK’s centralised Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reports an astonishing 450 per cent increase in student mental health declarations between 2011 and 2021. A 2022 survey conducted by the mental health charity Student Minds claims that 57 per cent of respondents self-reported a mental health issue while 27 per cent said they had a diagnosed mental health condition. It is commonly assumed that more students divulge mental health problems because they no longer perceive there to be a stigma in doing so. An alternative explanation is that mental health concerns have broadened to encompass emotional states that would not previously have been considered a medical problem.

Growing awareness of mental health problems speaks to a changed conception of not just students but, far more fundamentally, personhood. A therapeutic culture posits fragility and vulnerability as central to the human psyche. As British sociologist Frank Furedi notes, ‘a therapeutic language […] suggests that people are “fragile,” “damaged,” “scarred for life,” or “broken.”’(10) It is in this context that compassionate pedagogy – with its demand on lecturers to see both themselves and their students as vulnerable and distressed – finds a receptive audience. One British university notes that, ‘across disciplines, compassion is defined as the noticing of distress and/or disadvantage to self or others, and a commitment to take action to reduce it.’ The important point here is the assumption that distress is widespread but unnoticed. Another British university makes clear its expectation that the university will apply ‘what we know about mental wellbeing from clinical psychology […] to enhance the experience of all students and staff.’ This fundamentally alters the purpose of a university, the meaning of education and the relationship between lecturer and students. University is no longer a place of intellectual struggle but a site offering therapy to the vulnerable. Lecturers are not to challenge students but to care for them.

One danger is that promoting awareness of vulnerability can encourage students to see themselves and each other through this lens. Indeed, cultivating vulnerability is a goal of compassionate pedagogy. One guide notes that, ‘Compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’ and encompasses attentiveness, noticing another’s need, and a willingness to alleviate the suffering of others to enhance their wellbeing.’(3) This has been taken on board by Edinburgh Napier University where it is argued that ‘the compassionate classroom should be a place for ‘generating a sense of “co-suffering”’.(4)

The therapeutic act of listening and supporting those who are suffering becomes politicised when students are seen as members of identity groups. Those from identities perceived to be oppressed are to share their experiences of suffering with those deemed privileged. Compassionate pedagogy marks the transformation of higher education into a therapeutic and political intervention into the lives of young adults.

Against education

Alongisde a rejection of lectures and canonical knowledge, the therapeutic ethos of compassionate pedagogy demands the rejection of academic standards. Lectures are replaced by activities where knowledge is ‘co-constructed by students through active dialogue and engagement.’ Examinations are rejected in favour of flexible, formative assessment methods that are non-competitive and minimise stress. The University of Manitoba tells lecturers, ‘For work that is an F, give 49% vs. 25% to minimize impact on the final grade.’ Elsewhere, professors are advised to ‘Drop the lowest grade’ and ‘Allow multiple submission attempts.’ Rather than daring to know, or striving for excellence, students are encouraged to settle for emotional safety and mediocrity.

In place of academic attainment comes a focus on emotion. As noted, compassionate pedagogy goes beyond creating an environment safe for students with mental health issues and actively seeks to cultivate emotional responses through the experience of co-suffering. Compassionate pedagogy demands emotional transparency from staff who are expected to bring their ‘whole selves’ to their teaching, and encourage students to do likewise. In this way, students are expected to contribute not knowledge they have acquired, or even their thoughts in relation to course content, but their emotional responses. Caring, nurturing and demonstrating respect for others become routine classroom practices expected of both staff and students. Empathy is elevated to the status of a key skill that can be taught and even assessed.

Compassionate pedagogy is less concerned with what students know than with how they feel. It is assumed that feelings become public in our interactions with one another, for example, how we address other people or the way we make and maintain eye contact with others. Compassionate pedagogy draws attention to these behaviours in a bid to get students to modify their automatic responses. The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education suggests that staff and students must ‘agree to be interested in each other – that no one will dominate the dialogue – that everybody will work to draw-in the quieter person – that they will address each other compassionately and by name – and work together to achieve common goals.’

Writing for the University of Hertfordshire, Theo Gilbert urges lecturers to ‘disrupt alpha pairs’ and ‘interrupt individual monopolising behaviours’. He advises lecturers that eye contact can be used as a classroom intervention: ‘For example, a colluder in an alpha pair and/or with a monopoliser could notice that situation and break eye contact gently with the partner (monopoliser) channelling it to others by looking at them instead of the monopoliser.’ This assumes that compassion is not a private emotional response ‘but a psycho-biologically mediated motivation’. When understood in this way, compassionate pedagogy becomes a practice akin to cognitive behavioural therapy. Through making students aware of their behaviour, and instigating change, the lecturer-therapist seeks to alter their emotions.

This vastly expands the remit of the lecturer. Students are expected to subject themselves not to a critique of what they know but of how they feel and behave. This is an intrusive attempt at regulating the individual psyche to meet political, identity-driven goals. If students are reluctant to participate in such a project, Gilbert advises that ‘course credits for compassionate behaviours appeared to positively motivate students to attempt compassionate group management, regardless of their ethnic or national status.’ This attempt at enforcing emotional conformity severely undermines individual autonomy. It can lead students to conclude that, in order to be compassionate, they have no right to a private, interior realm.

Against academic freedom

Centering compassion in the university speaks to a goal of fundamentally altering the mindset of students and the culture and practices of the institution. Attempts to change students’ attitudes and values not through learning but through behavioural modification represents a serious infringement upon the liberty of students. As Furedi notes, the move from regulating what students can say, to how they should feel represents a ‘refocusing of the project of censorship from conscious speech to unconscious thought’ which, he argues, ‘is arguably the most disturbing development afflicting public life in Britain.’(10)

The emphasis placed on suffering, and in particular mental health struggles, is the primary way in which compassionate pedagogy justifies censorship. The demand on everyone within a university is to cultivate a climate of emotional safety in order to avoid traumatising the emotionally vulnerable. Compassionate pedagogues are urged: ‘At the beginning of the semester, communicate to students how you will ensure a safe and inclusive environment for them.’ Safety is often understood as involving the removal of all threats to a person’s identity; for example, protecting transgender students from misgendering and black students from racial microaggressions. When hurtful words are perceived as an unacceptable form of psychological damage, the regulation of speech is warranted on therapeutic grounds.(10) Worse, compelled speech becomes the order of the day as staff and students are expected to comply with the language set out in institutional style guides or risk causing offence.

Compassionate pedagogy is entirely hostile to academic freedom. When implemented across institutions, it erodes the capacity of individual academics to determine what and how to teach for themselves. In laying claim to ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’, its proponents portray those who do not comply with demands to decolonise the curriculum or employ particular teaching methods as unkind and uncaring. This emotional blackmail is not at all compassionate. It is an authoritarian and undemocratic means of imposing a political agenda without dialogue or accountability.


Compassionate pedagogy subsumes the traditional goals of a university – the pursuit and communication of knowledge and truth – to a politicised, therapeutic ethos. Although compassionate pedagogy is presented as an empathetic response to a dehumanised, marketised higher education sector, in practice it further dehumanises staff and students. It reduces people to members of identity groups and makes assumptions about the oppression they may have experienced or privilege they may embody. The notion that compassion is needed in response to the emotional fragility and vulnerability that lies at the heart of the human condition reduces academics and students alike to the status of patients. The push for safety rules out any element of intellectual challenge. Teaching that aims to transform students’ emotional responses is intrusive and unethical. Compassionate pedagogy is hostile to academic freedom and antithetical to education. Ultimately, it is anything but compassionate to those who fall foul of its strictures. It must be rejected.

Joanna Williams is the director of Cieo.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

(1) Hao, R.N. (2011) ‘Critical compassionate pedagogy and the teacher’s role in first-generation student success’ in New Directions for Teaching and Learning. Vol 2011, Issue 127, pp. 91-98.
(2) Gibbs, P. (2017) (ed.) The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education. Springer: London.
(3) Waddington, K. and Bonaparte, B. (2022) Developing Compassionate Pedagogical Practice with Students as Co-Researchers. Final Research Report. Society for Research into Higher Education. Page 4.
(4) Caddell, M. and Wilder K. (2018) ‘Seeking Compassion in the Measured University: Generosity, Collegiality and Competition in Academic Practice’ in Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice. Vol 6, Issue 3 pp. 14-­23.
(5) Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin. Page 6.
(6) Peters, J., & Mathias, L. (2018) Enacting student partnership as though we really mean it: Some Freirean principles for a pedagogy of partnership. International Journal for Students as Partners, 2(2).
(7) Young, M., Lambert, D. and Roberts, C. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
(8) Young, M. (1971) Knowledge and Control: New Directions in the Sociology of Education. London: Macmillan.
(9) Bourdieu, P. (2012) Key Concepts. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
(10)Furedi F. (2022) ‘Diseasing Speech in Britain’ in L. C. Sheehan (ed.) International Comparative Approaches to Free Speech and Open Inquiry. Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism.