Never live like common people; the problems with trying to empathise with those who lived in the past

Years ago a friend and I were travelling through the Ethiopian countryside in a rickety old bus. It was sunset and each village we chugged through was full of farmers returning from their fields. The air smelled of burning wood and spices as women prepared evening meals. “I love this time,” I said. “It’s when everyone’s at their happiest. Work done for the day, time to eat, talk with friends and then rest.”

My friend, himself an Ethiopian from an agricultural background, said nothing for a long time. Then, kindly but firmly, in a tone that ended the conversation; “Ben, you know nothing at all about it.”

He was, of course, quite right. Although I had thought I was, I was not empathising at all. The seemingly idyllic scene was only so in my eyes. Knowing nothing about what it was like to farm in Ethiopia, knowing nothing about what it was like to live at the whim of the seasons and knowing nothing about what it means to worry about your children starving I had simply plopped myself, as I was, into the villages we were passing and created my own happy fiction. What I had not understood was that if I lived in an Ethiopian village, I wouldn’t be me.

Of course, there are things I could have done, and indeed did do, to make more sense of what was happening in the villages we passed. I spoke to my friend. I asked questions. I read. I learned about the motivations, fears and beliefs of people who lived in agricultural Ethiopia. None of this led to me to empathy. The more I understood the less I believed I could ever understand what it’d feel like to be an Ethiopian farmer.

If this is true of people in the modern world, I think it is also true of the people who lived in the past. It is simply impossible to really know what people felt. Even seemingly straightforward physical sensations are more problematic than they might superficially appear to be. Take the burning of Nicholas Ridley in 1555, which was by contemporary accounts particularly agonising. Even if were capable of empathising with some of this pain, this empathy would be myopic because Ridley was likely to have been certain of heavenly salvation after death. We don’t know how he felt because most of us lack the certainty of his belief system.

The inner thoughts and emotions of past people remain a mystery to us and the best we can ever achieve is to gain something of an understanding of what their motivations, fears and beliefs were through their words and actions. Anything else is fiction.

It is because of this I don’t think the building of empathy, as defined as knowing what it felt like to live in the past, is a legitimate aim for history lessons in schools.

Why then is empathy so prominent in history in schools?

A recent Twitter poll (yeah, yeah, know not scientific) I ran suggests that there isn’t consensus over whether or not empathy has a place in school history. I find this puzzling, especially as there does seem to be a consensus among historians that empathy, at least in the way I define it, is not an aim of the discipline. Those kind enough to comment and even blog in response to my poll have given me some ideas as to why this disconnect might exist. As always, I encourage anyone who thinks I have got something wrong to point it out to me.

We define empathy differently.

The definition of empathy I have used so far (to know what it felt like in the past) is not shared by everyone. Some history teachers understand the term to mean understanding motives and aims, which gives insight to understanding the past better. To me this distinction, while apparently subtle, is actually profound. Ian Dawson’s canonical Je Suis le Rois lesson is a good example; after completing extensive knowledge based study, students take part in a scripted role-play on the Norman Conquest. By adopting roles students gain a deeper understanding of the likely motivations of the key players. It would be very easy to read this sort of activity as an attempt to know how those involved felt, but this misses the point. The lesson is scripted. Students are not encouraged to try to envisage how they would have felt had they been there. They do not improvise based on their own emotions.

I don’t disagree with teachers who define empathy this way and run activities like this one but do feel this isn’t the only conception of empathy helped by history teachers, and may not even be the most common.

Some teachers think history should be morally instructive

Lessons on slavery, segregation and the Holocaust invite moral judgement about the attitudes of people in the past. How could they not? As thinking, compassionate humans we respond emotionally to such atrocities. Such events, from a modern perspective, are incomprehensibly barbaric and it is natural to try and make sense of them by creating a narrative in which each event becomes a lesson for us in the present day. This has become a trope. We talk easily of ‘learning the lessons of history’ and I’ve seen Santayana’s ‘those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it’ up on the walls of many history classrooms, including mine. For curriculums with this ethos empathy is a useful tool; encouraging children to imagine what it felt like to be the victim of an historical injustice makes it more likely they will be on the look-out for its recurrence and less likely for the event to happen again.

As controversial as this may, or may not be, I think history lessons in schools should fight this.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, as I tried to demonstrate in my story about Ethiopia, it is impossible. Nobody can imagine what it was like to be Ann Frank. In the attempt to do so we graft our own internal, private thoughts and emotions onto a shadow. If we were Ann Frank we wouldn’t be us. When we try to empathise with her we imagine us as her. Any conclusions we draw by doing so will inevitably be flawed. Some might defend this approach by saying that while perfection is impossible, we can better empathise with past personalities by learning more about them. I don’t think this is true. I find the more I learn about someone the more they slip away. When I knew nothing about Ethiopian villagers I thought I could empathise with them; the more I learned, the more unfamiliar their world became and the more I realised I couldn’t.

The idea of moral instruction as a purpose is also flawed in that the jury is very, very much out on whether societies learn lessons from the past at all. We now rightly regard slavery as morally indefensible, yet human trafficking is rising. The teaching of slavery as immoral, perhaps by encouraging children to empathise with the enslaved, has not ended it. This is important. If we don’t learn from the past then having this as a stated aim of history in schools is to set ourselves up to fail.

Secondly, encouraging empathy as a tool for moral instruction is dangerous in that it implies the values we hold now are both universally accepted and correct a priori. This is sort of reverse Whiggish. History taught this way is a tool to emphasise our past mistakes and to highlight injustices where they still exist in the modern world. We teach children about the suffrage movement so they are better able to spot modern sexism. We teach them about the issues with National Insurance so they will value the National Health Service. There is evidence of this in the sorts of perspectives children are asked to take when empathising with those in the past. Writing a letter as a Great War soldier, yes. Writing a letter as a general, no. Writing a diary entry of a slave, acceptable. Writing a diary entry of a slave owner, unacceptable. By encouraging or allowing this we create a narrative that fits our own views and reduce interpretative scope, valuing some perspectives over others because we find them more palatable, not because of stronger evidence and argument.

I, of course, understand that some will say that this is all quite right and proper. It was wrong that no women could not vote before 1918. It was wrong that soldiers were made to fight in trenches. It was wrong that people were enslaved. With my history teacher hat off, I agree. But for me this comes with a significant cautionary note; if we accept the use of history to teach moral lessons, we open the door for those with very different morals to do the same. If we are to accept that a purpose of history should be to teach what is right and what is wrong, then we need give extremely careful thought as to what these morals are and where they come from.

History is regarded as different in schools to how it is at higher academic levels.

I’m quite sure some will read this and come to the understandable conclusion that I have a stick shoved firmly up my arse and am being fussily quasi-intellectual and pedantic. I think I get the point; what does it matter if children aren’t completing historical essay work in Year 7? They’re only bloody eleven! Aren’t they more likely to learn the basics if they deeply and imaginatively immerse themselves in the past? If imagining being a Saxon warrior in the shield wall on Senlac Hill helps you remember what a shield wall is better than just answering a question, then why not?

This sort of thinking is pretty widespread. Recently I heard of a history teacher told by an Ofsted inspector (also a history teacher) that the lesson she’d taught had not been successful because she had tried to teach them different interpretations. “They just need the Horrible Histories stuff in Year 7,” the inspector said, “get them hooked in and the rest will come after.”

A while back, someone sent a tweet which said something along the lines of “I want to engage children with history, not just in it.” I think it identifies the difference in approach clearly.

Engaging children with history, if I understood the tweeter right, is exposing them to a whole range of resources and activities set around the past and not being constrained by whether or not they fit with any scholarly definition of history as a discipline. This could mean showing films such as Saving Private Ryan or reading classic literature such as “The Eagle of the Ninth”.  If these are accepted as valid historical activities, then encouraging children to take part in empathetic activities is entirely logical. Both Stephen Spielberg and Rosemary Sutcliff, to at least a degree, had to imagine themselves in the past to make the productions they did.

Personally I am not comfortable with this in my own classroom. For me, ‘doing’ history should mean being concerned with the same issues that l historians are, and communicating this knowledge in a comparable style. Historians don’t write in the first person. Historians communicate their ideas through essays and articles and don’t write novels, make films or (generally – #1066 historians I’m looking at you) act.  Even when historical fiction is at it very best as it is, in my view, in Mantel’s Wolf Hall series it still is not history. Some historians may present documentaries, but these documentaries will almost always be based on more formal academic work. This is, of course, not to say I expect Y7 students to write full essays each week (Daisy Christodoulu explains why this would be a mistake), but does mean that I wouldn’t choose any activity, including an empathetic one, that wasn’t of the same genre.

I suspect that different attitudes towards what schools history is and for might be at the crux of disagreement around all activities that aren’t classically scholarly. This division, if indeed it exists to the extent I suspect it does, might well be unbridgeable; some teachers believe it is to teach moral lessons and to give children an interest in the past generally, which makes empathy a legitimate aim. Those of us who disagree with this see no purpose in even making the attempt.

So, having already written far more than I intended to when I started this, I won’t try. Instead I’ll finish with two quotations that I think illustrate the fundamentally quixotic nature of attempts to get children to empathise with people who lived in the past:

“For whatever we lose (like a your or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

                                    e e cummings


“But still you’ll never get it right

‘cause when you’re laid in bed at night,

Watching roaches climb the wall,

If you called your Dad he could stop it all”

You’ll never live like common people.”

                                    Jarvis Cocker.


5 thoughts on “Never live like common people; the problems with trying to empathise with those who lived in the past

  1. Of all the things you highlight I think the most important one is that we are opening up the way for others to do the same. We already have this – the British Empire was taught as glorious and then there was the swing to teach it completely as an ill.

    I do wonder what the impact of relating to victims has on the current generation who seem to be now using historical injustices as a way of demonstrating their victimhood in the present. We don’t seem to have taught them that empathising with the victim doesn’t make you one and it doesn’t stop you from committing awful acts either.


  2. This is very persuasive.

    And consequently terrifying.

    No, really.

    Because this isn’t just about ‘write a diary about your feelings,’ which I think most of us can get behind as something which is of little value.

    If you’re right, and it’s a convincing argument, what are we doing? Are we, as Ranke would have us do, just trying to get across ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’? Well, how people in the past thought & felt is a huge part of how it actually was.

    Are we trying to understand why things happened? Mostly because of human actions, and if we really can’t get into these people’s heads, and when we think we understand them then we’re likely to be kidding ourselves, then how can we understand why they made the choices and the decisions which they made?

    See, I would say that ‘why did people go on crusades’ is a legitimate historical question. But to come to any reasonable answer we’ve got to dig as deep into the psyche of the soldierly class (sorry) of the High Middle Ages as we can, and to try to understand, however imperfectly, just what made them do it.

    So is ‘why did France follow a policy of appeasement?’ Does it help to take a group of schoolchildren to Notre Dame de Lorette and say ‘look at all these graves; now imagine that you are someone who lost people in the Great War, or indeed that you’re a politician; try to imagine the loss you feel, and the fear of it happening again, or of being responsible for this again’?

    I would say that trying to grapple with this is an important part of doing history. And yet … I fear I’m wrong about this.

    So are we just telling stories? If, as you & Jarvis Cocker say, we’ll never get it right, then the postmodernists are correct, and anything we say about the past is irredeemably infected with our own prejudices & predilections … I’d hate this to be true. I really do try not to impose any of my own values on the history I teach. But I’m sure EA Freeman would have said the same, and I’ve just been reading his History of the Norman Conquest, and at times it’s just embarrassingly partial. And just because I’d hate it to be true, doesn’t mean that it isn’t.


  3. Pingback: Concerning @Bennewmark’s post on empathy in history teaching – The (il)logical teacher

  4. Pingback: The perils of using empathy in historical analysis | History Lover

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