The Case for Empathy in the History Classroom

By Davison, Martyn | Curriculum Matters, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Case for Empathy in the History Classroom

Davison, Martyn, Curriculum Matters


Empathy in the history classroom is about thinking (cognition) and feeling (affect). According to Shemilt (1984) empathy can be thought of cognitively as the ability of students not only to "think themselves into alien situations ... [and] alien minds" (p. 54) but also to question how they go about doing this. Empathy is also about drawing an emotional or affective connection with the past so that students can be appropriately moved by historical events (Bardige, 1988). Both of these ways of seeing recognise that empathy is about deliberately engaging with the strangeness of the past. In so doing empathy may also help students to understand unfamiliar perspectives in the present.

It is interesting that Barack Obama (2008) talks about empathy as a guidepost in his desire to find common ground. He argues that an empathy deficit--the inability to think about how one's actions (or inaction) will affect others--explains why people turn away from helping those who are struggling in society. In other words, Obama argues that being able to empathise is highly desirable. Ashby and Lee (1987, p. 85) reason that while it may be too simplistic to say that empathy will lead us all towards the common good, it is true that "where the alien is seen as stupid and inferior, there is little chance of progress towards genuine understanding". Empathy, then, is attuning ourselves to past beliefs and avoiding what Brophy and Alleman (2006) call presentism: a belief that from the viewpoint of hindsight people in the past are easily patronised and seen as less smart than we are today.

In history education, empathy helps students overcome presentism by placing past beliefs within their context. Students come to realise that people in the past acted in a way that made sense at the time. A failure to understand this is problematic. Borries (1994, p. 347) comments that "whoever is unable to reconstruct, by way of understanding the other, the logic of action of that person's "strange" forebears will also fail to recognise the different reasoning patterns among his or her contemporaries of the current world theatre". Thus, empathy in the history classroom is not a lifeless historical concept but instead one that may lead to students making open-minded choices when encountering diverse perspectives in the here and now.

The New Zealand Curriculum and empathy in history education

There are two places in The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) that are pertinent to empathy in history education. Firstly, empathy is most clearly signalled in the front of the document in one of the five overarching key competencies, relating to others. The inclusion of this competency in The New Zealand Curriculum follows a large international project that identifies a series of important 21st century competencies, including "relating well to others" (Rychen, 2003; Rychen & Salganik, 2003).

In The New Zealand Curriculum, the key competency relating to others is about:

... interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. This competency includes the ability to listen actively, recognise different points of view, negotiate, and share ideas. Students who relate well to others are open to new learning and able to take different roles in different situations. They are aware of how their words and actions affect others. They know when it is appropriate to compete and when it is appropriate to co-operate. By working effectively together, they can come up with new approaches, ideas, and ways of thinking. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 12)

Described by Hipkins (2005, 2006) as more than a co-operative social skill, this competency emphasises inclusiveness and understanding the different contexts of people's lives. O'Connor and Dunmill (2005), discussing relating to others from the perspective of arts education, have similarly highlighted its affective focus on relationships, working together and the forming of friendships.

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The Case for Empathy in the History Classroom


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