Who Gets Historical Empathy?

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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.

Continue reading “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”

Facing Facts (and Avoiding Alarmism)

pewreport-factopinion-1This morning, I saw a Reuters story with an alarming lede: “Only a quarter of U.S. adults in a recent survey could fully identify factual statements—as opposed to opinion—in news stories, the Pew Research Center found in a study released on Monday.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good, I thought.

This seems like important territory for history instruction to address. It might also provide a useful reading for students. So I pulled up the Pew report in question: “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News” (by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Nami Sumida, dated June 18, 2018).

There’s a lot to like about the way this study was conducted. But I have concerns.

Continue reading “Facing Facts (and Avoiding Alarmism)”