by: Joseph Oliveri
Social Sciences Professor Christopher Kukk’s experience as a counter-intelligence agent for the U.S. Army and advocating for nuclear non-proliferation in front of the United Nations hasn’t culminated in the firebrand intimidation such a resume might suggest. Measured grace and audacious enthusiasm is probably a more fitting description.
Yet, there’s something that bothers him. It’s the ultimatum, “eat or be eaten,” that he says pervades society and education. Undoing that, Dr. Kukk says, means choosing the virtue of compassion in decision-making.
“Change is about action,” Kukk says in his office in WCSU’s Ifran Kathwari Honor’s house. “I think a lot of people have what it takes to attain success backward.”
“In social sciences, we don’t deal with the neuroscience,” Kukk explains. “In neuroscience, they don’t deal with the social sciences. But they’re connected. So I decided to combine [them], like a social neuroscience, to understand how behavior occurs.”
Kukk marries the two fields in his 2017 book, The Compassionate Achiever: How Helping Others Fuels Success. Outlining a four-step curriculum intended for education in kindergarten through eighth grade, Kukk’s model aims to guide students toward “rejecting rage and indifference and choosing instead to be a thoughtful, caring problem-solver.”
The key is that creating an effectively “compassionate environment” will incentivize a better decision-making process. “It releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and dopamine increases learning.” Kukk says. “If you’re creating an environment that releases more of those neurotransmitters, you have a greater chance of success for a greater number of students, rather than living in a stressed-out academic environment. You’re looking to create an environment on the outside of a person that affects the inside of a person.”
Yet, the seeds that would yield The Compassionate Achiever were actually planted much earlier than this past year.
In 2012, Newtown, Connecticut was rocked by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was the aftermath of the tragedy that saw the inception of a movement called Choose Love.
Newtown resident and Choose Love Movement founder Scarlett Lewis’ 6-year-old son, Jesse, was a Sandy Hook victim. Jesse’s name began appearing in coverage of the tragedy after reports surfaced that he had tried to protect his teacher while nine of his classmates escaped their room when it came under fire. Afterward, Lewis found inspiration after discovering Jesse had written three words on the family’s kitchen chalkboard before he died: “Nurturing, Healing, Love.”
It’s this, Kukk says, he feels speaks to people’s–namely children’s–innate predisposition to compassion.
“We unlearn it through society,” Kukk says.
“After Jesse’s death, I knew that if Adam Lanza had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love that the tragedy wouldn’t have happened,” Lewis told the Huffington Post in December.
Lewis and Kukk met in 2012, and have since worked along with other educators to design Choose Love’s curriculum. A downloadable set of materials, available on their website, has already been implemented in 5,769 educators in the U.S. alone, and is present in schools across 40 different countries worldwide.
February saw a showcasing of the program’s progress at Kaelaepulu Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaii. Kukk and Lewis joined 200 other educators from around the state to demonstrate Choose Love’s advantages. Kukk says Kaelaepulu has become somewhat of a ground zero for cultivating compassion across the state. He says test scores have risen, and that new students, many of whom come from a nearby military base, are “seamlessly welcomed in.”
The same model of “compassion through action” that is the lifeblood of the Choose Love curriculum has made its way onto Western’s campus and the way Kukk curates the Kathwari Honors Program. Since 2016, the WCSU Leadership Certificate in Compassion and Creativity has been available for students to obtain through participating in a variety of charity and public improvement efforts, which Kukk says is an ongoing success for students.
While his efforts have rapidly traveled to the far reaches of the campus, state, country, and world, there will always be a single constant, Kukk says.
“I love the students. It’s something you either do, or you don’t.”
Dr. Kukk is the host of a WCSU podcast, The Compassionate Achiever, which can be accessed here.