Embracing Historical Empathy

Published on April 13, 2021

Sara Karn is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Her dissertation research explores historical empathy in Canadian history education. Sara is a K-12 teacher in Ontario and has led experiential learning programs on the First and Second World War battlefields in Europe. You can follow her on Twitter: @sara_karn.

In today’s world, we could all use more empathy. From the climate crisis and pandemic precarity to systemic racism and warfare, the “wicked problems” of today require understanding others and bridging divides. Empathy offers us a way forward through its emphasis on considering diverse perspectives, embracing differences, and caring about others. However, studies have found that empathy may be on the decline in countries around the world, which is also linked to a decrease in civic engagement.[1] So what does all this mean for history education, where educators are tasked with teaching students about people and circumstances in the past?

At the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, history education has the potential to address this empathy deficit. I propose that we, as history educators in Canada, turn our attention towards learning opportunities that create the conditions for historical empathy—the process of understanding the thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions of people within their specific historical contexts. In doing so, we can emphasize the affective element of history education that is often overlooked, yet central to our ability to understand others in both the past and present.

Historical empathy has been a rich area of research in history education around the world for nearly five decades. There are ongoing debates about whether historical empathy is purely a cognitive undertaking grounded in the methods of the history discipline or a cognitive-affective process that also requires the application of a range of feelings and emotions to the historical method.[2] However, in Canada, relatively little attention has been paid to historical empathy. Instead, much of the focus has remained on a related concept: historical perspectives. According to The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts, taking a historical perspective involves the cognitive processes of considering historical contexts, basing inferences on evidence, avoiding presentism, and exploring diverse points of view.[3] While these are also important elements of historical empathy, an affective component is missing.

1st image 13 april
Figure 1: Cognitive and Affective Elements of Historical Empathy.

Some critics believe that the affective element of historical empathy is problematic.[4] They argue that feelings and emotions can lead students to simply feel bad for historical actors (this is sympathy, not empathy) or use an unrestrained imagination to pretend they were someone from the past. Educators should proceed with these concerns in mind and encourage their students to focus on understanding historical actors and use an informed imagination that considers a range of possibilities based on historical evidence and contexts. If taught effectively, the affective dimension of historical empathy has the potential to develop historical thinking and nurture informed, caring citizens.

In Teaching History for the Common Good, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik assert that caring about historical actors should not be repressed, but rather valued as a tool for learning about history.[5] They outline four types of caring in history: (1) caring about people and events in the past; (2) caring that particular events took place; (3) caring for people in history who have suffered injustices or oppression; and (4) caring to change our beliefs and behaviours in the present in light of studying the past. This approach places students at the centre of the process and encourages them to acknowledge connections between the past and present, rather than attempting to distance the historical investigator from the historical actor.

2nd image 13 april

Figure 2: Barton & Levstik’s (2004) Four Types of Caring.

So how might Canadian history educators approach historical empathy in their classrooms, with particular attention paid to the affective dimensions? As a starting point, I suggest a series of teaching prompts, using Barton and Levstik’s four types of caring, that are applicable across different content areas and levels of education:

3rd image 13 april

In offering these suggestions, my hope is that history educators will embrace historical empathy—if they haven’t already—and realize its potential for developing historical thinking and nurturing informed, caring citizens. There is more work to be done on conceptualizing historical empathy and understanding its place in Canadian history education. My ongoing research aims to do just that by conducting interviews with history education researchers and teachers in Canada. Stay tuned…

[1] Jean M. Twenge, “The Evidence for Generation Me and Against Generation We,” Emerging Adulthood 1, no. 1 (2013): 11-16.
[2] For more on this debate, see Sarah Brooks, “Historical Empathy in the Social Studies Classroom: A Review of the Literature,” the Journal of Social Studies Research 33, no. 2 (2009): 213-234.
[3] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Nelson, 2012).
[4] For example, see Peter Knight, “Empathy: Concept, Confusion and Consequences in a National Curriculum, Oxford Review of Education 15, no. 1 (1989): 41-53.
[5] Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).

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