Who Gets Historical Empathy?


On Sunday, the Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen learned he had been mentioned in a former student’s white-nationalist chat messages. I heard about this when Matt Gabriele, a medievalist, pointed out Kohen’s news on Twitter.

“They’re in our classes y’all,” Gabriele warned historians. “What’s your pedagogy?”

It’s a good question.

Teachers of history (and related fields) who imagine we can argue students into rejecting white-power ideology are mostly mistaken. Although white power involves many false beliefs, it amounts to nothing less than a conception of basic human social bonds and the nature of personal selfhood. Freeing oneself from such a hell of the imagination requires more than hearing refutations.

(That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t refute false ideas. The “backfire effect” is probably overblown. But refutation is only going to get us so far.)

Work of the imagination is required.

In this context, I’m among the historians who think the most powerful specialized tool we have for combating toxic ideologies is “historical empathy.”

But there’s an important problem with the way some of us try to use it.

As Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks have argued (PDF), historical empathy really involves three processes: historical contextualization, perspective taking, and affective connection. That is, students must recognize how the past context was different; try to understand a past person’s way of thinking within that context; and connect that person’s emotional life to what the students have experienced. The convergence of the three processes allows students to understand their own perspectives as historically situated and limited, while also inspiring themselves to ethical action (for the good of other people) in the present.*

When fully realized, the three-way effect makes historical empathy a powerful tool for creating an imaginative alternative to prejudice and bigotry.

But I think we need to consider a fourth part of historical empathy: historical recognition—the process of granting historical salience to people whose perspectives are less often taken. Without this fourth process, we can easily train students to be highly empathetic bigots.


Let me put it this way: It’s a good idea to pay attention to which figures from the past get the full walk-around-in-their-shoes treatment in your classes. Do they always somehow turn out to be same sort of person?

To teach a history course is to populate an imagined community. When we use primary sources in class, or when we build lectures around certain characters, we are making some people into representatives of that community while ignoring others. Who gets the speaking roles in that community? Who gets to write its songs and be painted in its portraits? For anti-racist purposes, that is the real argument of the course.

It’s one thing to take anti-racist positions, and another to build an anti-racist imagination—one that recognizes not only the presence but also the subjectivity, agency, and full moral equality of the oppressed and marginalized.

My particular fear, based on seeing what some white historians say about empathy, is that some of us—in the name of objectivity!—may spend a lot of time thinking about how to get white students to understand the perspectives of past racists (naively assuming that’s where the most distance will be), and not much time thinking about how to connect them with the perspectives of people of color, members of religious minority groups, or some groups of immigrants.

I hope I’m wrong about how common this problem is. But I’ve often found it useful to examine my own work for signs that I’m lapsing into it.


* Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An Updated Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” Social Studies Research and Practice 8, no. 1 (spring 2013): 41-58.

Images: Top: Detail from Winslow Homer, The Water Fan, c. 1898. Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. Middle: Detail from Augustus F. Sherman, “Serbian Gypsies,” photograph at Ellis Island, N.Y., c. 1906. Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library. Public domain.

1 thought on “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”

Comments are closed.