Historical empathy

The government’s announcement that teaching New Zealand history will be made compulsory from 2022 has generated a lot of debate amongst teachers and the public.

There appears to be real appetite for this change. But beyond the excitement and anticipation, nagging questions remain. What will be taught? How can you design a coherent programme for students moving between primary, intermediate, and secondary school? What resources exist to support teachers who lack confidence in historical content and/or in teaching the skills of historical thinking? These are important considerations, but to avoid the trap of entering a ‘History Wars’ scenario, in which endless debates are held about which history should be taught, another question needs to be asked – why teach history in the first place?

One response to this question draws on the concept of historical empathy and the promise of becoming more humane. Sam Wineburg, author of Historical thinking and other unnatural acts argues that history can humanise us and bring us together, rather than tear us apart. This is a bold claim that deserves interrogation. And it leads to another question: how can you teach historical empathy?

My experience

It was my first lesson of the year and I was standing in front of my Year 13 history class. I felt myself getting emotional as I relayed a speech my grandfather made on his 80th birthday. A veteran of the Second World War, he never spoke openly about his experiences. He was a man of few words (to me at least), stern and direct. I was always a bit frightened of him. I knew he had been shot, nearly fatally, had recovered and then returned to active service. I remember seeing the scar on his chest once, but the real scars were hidden, his memories of that brutal time rarely shared. But on this occasion, in front of family and friends, he explained how happy and relieved he had been when he heard that the USA had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Why? Because he knew it meant the war would soon end and he would be able to return home. As I mentioned this to my class, I could feel some of them recoiling. I hastened to say that I like to think of myself as a pacifist and had I lived during that time then I would have been a conscientious objector. But would I have been? I cannot say for sure. While I find the dropping of an atomic bomb on a city full of innocent people abhorrent, and while I find his opinion unpleasant, I have sought to understand it. This is historical empathy

Woodrow Wilson said that history’s highest aim is to endow us with the mental power we call judgement: the ability to evaluate, to weigh up information and perspectives about the past. But we must be careful about our judgements. As Peter Seixas from the Historical Thinking Project points out, how can we ensure our judgements are ethical?  Historians need to live with, expect, and even embrace complexity and nuance. And in order to cherish or condemn people from the past we must first seek to understand them and their historical context, no matter how distant or strange they may at first seem. Seixas captures the idea:

We do not want to impose our own anachronistic standards on the past. At the same time, meaningful history does not treat brutal slave-holders, enthusiastic Nazis, and marauding conquistadors in a ‘neutral’ manner. Historians attempt to hold back on explicit ethical judgments about actors in the midst of their accounts, but, when all is said and done, if the story is meaningful, then there is an ethical judgment involved. We should expect to learn something from the past that helps us to face the ethical issues of today.

There are two quotes I like using with students that underline the tension that exists in encountering the past: the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feeling connected to the past and feeling distant from it. Joseph Wittreich captures the connections: ‘History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ Students tend to like this quote. I like it too. It speaks of the common forces and trends that bind us together across time and space, and draws attention to the continuities that connect the past and the present. In this way the past can be made to feel familiar. As Wineburg explains, ‘the familiar past entices us with the promise that we can locate our own place in the stream of time and solidify our identity in the present.’ But the real test of empathy, he argues, is when we are confronted with difference and strangeness, not sameness. ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ L.P. Hartley’s quip captures the unfamiliar past. How can we develop historical empathy for acts (and actors) that appear so far from our own lived experience? We naturally seek to filter our understanding through our own experience – to compare and to contrast. For Primo Levi, this is the problem, coming to know people in the past by relying on our ‘lived experience’. And in an increasingly diverse world, our inability to perceive the experience of ‘others’ applies to the present no less than the past.

Richard White claims that ‘any good history begins in strangeness … the past should not be a familiar echo of the present.’ Robert Dalton emphasises that ‘we constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.’ The problem here is ‘presentism’ – the act of viewing the past through the lens of the present. Fair enough, but part of me wants to object to the insistence that we must study the strange past. Following this advice, an image of bored, uninterested students comes into focus. What about the advice to choose contexts that are relevant and will engage students, so that they see themselves in the curriculum? Choosing to study the Polynesian Panthers because you have a lot of Pasifika students in your class makes sense, right? Likewise, it is no surprise that kura kaupapa Māori schools are well versed in local iwi histories. It is also important to acknowledge the empowering and disempowering impacts of studying history. Howard Zinn implores us to use history as a way to influence actions in the present:

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

One way to resolve this tension is to begin with the familiar. Using the present as a launching point can help students feel invested and lead to an awareness about how the past seeps into the present. For instance, who would not reference the Black Lives Matter movement if studying the Black Panther Party (or any other historical period that has seen conflict over power and justice)? Even when teaching contexts that may appear familiar to students, there are ways to bring in ‘outside’ perspectives, ideas that challenge them to empathise with those who are different from themselves. As teachers we need to keep thinking about ways to move students between the familiar and the strange in order to build their historical understanding and empathy.

Ricky Prebble, Educator–Historian

Approaches that support teaching historical empathy

  • Hearing first-hand accounts from the descendants of people connected to the history you are teaching is powerful. Invite experts from the community into your class or visit them at an historic site. Hear the voices of iwi as well as Pākehā historians. See Te Takanga o te Wā for more specific approaches to teaching Māori history.
  • Field trips can be excellent ways to get a ‘feel’ for the past. Visiting places where history has happened draws students into the story in a visceral way; it connects the heart (affective domain) and the head (cognitive domain). The same is true with objects. Artefacts can connect to students’ lives and can be used to make comparisons to the lives and cultures of others. Connecting with a local archaeologist could support this approach, and archaeological reports offer a rich window into the material ‘DNA’ of history.
  • Examining divergent perspectives, while ensuring that context is woven into these perspectives. Going beyond what was said in the past and exploring why by bringing into focus the emotional/affective quality of people’s views – what were their hopes, their fears, their aspirations. Students can relate to these emotions.
  • Read, discuss and debate. Talk openly about empathy so that students come to see it as an important historical concept. Tease out students’ assumptions and then interrogate these with evidence.


Peter Seixas, Historical Thinking Project, https://historicalthinking.ca

Sam Wineburg (2001), Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: charting the future of teaching the past

Howard Zinn (1980), A people’s history of the United States

How to cite this page

'Empathy: Historical empathy', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/historical-concepts/empathy-historical, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Jul-2021

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