Historical Thinkers are Empathetic Listeners

Last week, we looked at the phrase, “History Repeats Itself” through a historical thinking lens. There are some truths to the phrase since many patterns can be seen throughout the past, however, it is too simplistic. Yes, studying history reveals continuities, but what makes it an academic discipline is change. The past is interesting because things have changed over time. 

This week, I want to talk about empathy. I remember a few years ago when I was reading historian John Fea’s Why Study History?. He summarizes the importance of empathy in the study of the past. If empathy is trying to genuinely understand other people, their thoughts, and their actions, then historians must be empathetic if they want to present an accurate view of the past. It’s not simply about what happened, but why things happened and how people felt about what happened. Simply, Fea recognizes that historical thinkers must “listen to the past,” in order to accurately portray the past. 

The need for empathy is most pronounced with the historical thinking skill of Continuity and Change over Time. When historians and students acknowledge that things have changed over time, they acknowledge the need for humility and understanding of past events and actors. In many ways, the past is a foreign country to us. People thought, spoke, and acted differently than we do today. Historians must uncover these differences not necessarily to praise or condemn (although there is, at times, occasion for both), but to understand. How can we study people accurately if we don’t try to truly understand them?

At first, when we gloss over a historical thinking skill, we may just see analysis skills helpful for students in classrooms, but history has so much more to offer us. When we recognize that the past is both similar and different than our present, we cease to draw simplified conclusions, and rather than just trying to make use of the past for our present needs, we try to understand the past for what it was, much like we hope future generations will try to understand us. This act is an act in both humility and empathy. 

With this in mind, Thinking Nation’s historical thinking curriculum strives to equip students to understand the foreign country that is the past. Sometimes they will explore eras and events that are intrinsically interesting to them and connected to our present. Sometimes they will explore parts of the past that feel a little more foreign. But at all times, we know that historical thinkers must try to present the past accurately, and that means putting ourselves in the shoes of those who came before, thinking through the many differences between those lives and our own, and presenting the complex human experience in a thoughtful way.

We want to create a Thinking Nation and we believe that equipping students with historical thinking skills is paramount to this endeavor. When students utilize the historical thinking skill of Continuity and Change over Time, they must be empathetic toward the past. This also has very real implications for their present. When we internalize this historical empathy, we are better able to be empathetic in our own lives. We try to understand others who are different than us before we rush into judgment and we recognize that different life circumstances, backgrounds, and upbringing can lead people to different conclusions. Understanding before (and perhaps even instead of) judgment. With polarization only growing, this feels crucial. If we want a flourishing democracy we need empathetic citizens. Thinking historically can help ensure that happens.