Michael Cromer, Department of Curriculum Studies
Turning towards the torrents of the past: Historical empathy in the Canadian secondary school classroom
For all that is valuable in life is contained in what can be experienced and the whole outer clamor of history revolves around it (Dilthey, 1976, Selected writings , p. 172).
Who can still call on a proverb when he needs one? And who will even attempt to deal with young people by giving them the benefit of their experience?... A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body (Benjamin, 1933/1999, Experience and poverty, pp. 731-732).
Current level of graduate studies
I am in the second year of a PhD program in the Department of Curriculum Studies at the University of British Columbia and am a Student Research Associate in the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness (CSHC). In my first year at UBC, I completed a set of courses that focused on curricula in historical context, cultural geographic imaginations of time and space, the meanings of childhood, and notions of subjectivity. I am currently completing all required course work and will be organizing a program of study for my comprehensive exams by the end of this year. I am working under the direction of Dr. Peter Seixas , Canada Research Chair in Education and Director, CSHC, and Dr. Penney Clark , Assistant Professor of Curriculum Studies. As a research assistant, I am working for Dr. Seixas on his SSHRC project, Using the Past and Thinking Historically, which explores how young people think about and use the past. We are currently analyzing quantitative date and coding qualitative responses. This research extends my doctoral work exploring historical consciousness, specifically as children in the history classroom understand it.
Research on empathy and the historical understanding of children has emerged in the last two decades as an important area of inquiry. The work has enhanced our understanding of the ways in which students learn and think historically. As Seixas notes, a key component of historical understanding is empathy. Yet despite efforts to define historical empathy the notion remains, as Ashby and Lee (1987) state, difficult to pin down. The inevitable situatedness of knowing and the contested semantics associated with historical empathy has led some scholars (Low-Beer, 1989; Jenkins & Brickley, 1989) to mock attempts to reconstruct the past as epistemologically naïve. The use of words such as broadly inferential (Ashby & Lee; 1987, p. 63), imaginative speculation (Portal, 1987, p. 34) and mysterious and necromancy (VanSledright, 2001) has only served as fodder for further ridicule. But as Seixas (1996) points out, arguments that we inevitably reconstruct the past from our own frame of reference and thereby taint any understanding of history throws sophisticated historical understandings out with the muddy waters of historical empathetic readings of the past. Were Low-Beer, Jenkins and Brickley right, history would be reduced to a fiction that tempts moral relativism.
But where detractors see historical empathy as unattainable and unamenable to assessment, supporters take this as a challenge rather than a pedagogical and political pitfall. Indeed, the contested notion of the term suggests both the difficulty and the intellectual value of teaching for historical empathy in the classroom. Shemilt (1984) and Ashby and Lee (1987) offer a scaffold that could be used as the basis both for instruction and assessment. And despite disagreements within the literature, those who support teaching for historical empathy would agree with Davis (2001) that [A]lways, it is imagination restrained by evidence (p. 4). Nevertheless, Ashby and Lee (1987) conclude from their research among English pupils that the acquisition of a disposition to empathize and to understand why empathy matters is perhaps the most important task in the teaching of history. And Seixas (1997) stresses that historical empathy is not easy, for artifacts can mislead us, if placed in contexts different from the lost worlds they once inhabited (p. 118).
Growing pains are predictable in a field in its infancy. The academic borders are relatively porous and contested. The need for more research into students' historical empathy and specifically into research in the Canadian context drives the focus of my own work. This work contributes to scholarship spearheaded by researchers in Great Britain (Ashby & Lee, 1987), the United States (Barton & Levstik, 1996) and New Zealand (Levstik, 1999) with a particular look at how students in Canada use historical empathy to understand the past.
My PhD research will begin with a literature review of historical understanding and how historical imagination has been conceptualized in the past and how historical empathy is understood by contemporary academics. In agreement with others in the field (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Foster & Yeager, 1998; VanSledright & Brophy, 1992), I will explore how historical empathy can be understood as a process towards a horizon of understanding that involves both cognitive and affective ways of knowing. And like Ashby and Lee (1987), I will argue that empathy in history rests on evidential reconstruction, but although this must be broadly inferential, it does not have to involve formally articulated reasoning rather than intuitive leaps, sudden flashes or inspiration or the like (p. 63). I do not pretend to seek a resolution to the epistemological issues about the reconstruction of the past that vexed German philosophers Walter Benjamin and Wilhelm Dilthey. Even so, recent works by Agamben (1993) Ankersmit (2005), and Jay (2005) suggest areas that may offer new insights into conceptualizing historical empathy.
The theoretical review will lead to an empirical study of how students understand historical empathy. Similar to Yeager and Doppen's (2001) study of teaching multiple perspectives in the secondary classroom, my research will be informed by the design questions developed by Portal (1987) for studying the development of students' historical empathy in a secondary school classroom. Grafting their study onto the Canadian context will involve a study based on a particular historical incident in Canadian history. I plan to develop the research through a comparative analysis of how students from various communities, such as recent immigrants and First Nations, conceptualize historical empathy and how this may reflect on the need to rethink history curricula.
This research offers several original contributions to both history education and the application of historical empathy. First, it grounds conceptualizing the notion of historical empathy in the historiography of experience and the recreation of the past. Second, it addresses the gap in the literature in the context of Canadian students' understanding of history empathy. Finally, Barton and Levstik (2004) identify the scarcity of studies that demonstrate students' willingness to apply historical understanding to moral actions in the present. This research will provide ways of using historical empathy in the classroom to learn about the past and also to apply that learning to contemporary ethical relationships.
Agamben, G. (1993). Infancy and history: The destruction of experience . New York : Verso.
Ankersmit, F. R. (2005). Sublime historical experience . Stanford , CA : Stanford University Press.
Ashby, R. & Lee, P. (1987). Children's concepts of empathy and understanding in history. In Portal, C. (Ed.). The history curriculum for teachers . London : Falmer Press, pp. 62-88.
Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching history for the common good . Mahwah , NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum.
Benjamin, W. (1999). Experience and poverty. In M. W. Jennings , H. Eiland, & G. Smith (Eds.), R. Livingstone and others (Trans.), Selected Writings: vol. 2, part 2, 1931-1934 (pp. 731-736). Cambridge , MA.: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1933)
Davis, O. L., Yeager, E. A., & Foster, S. J. (2001). Historical empathy and perspective taking in the social studies . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Dilthey, W. (1976). Selected writings . (H. P. Rickman, Trans.). New York : Cambridge University Press.
Doppen, F. H. (2000). Teaching and learning multiple perspectives: The atomic bomb. The Social Studies, 91 (4), 159-169.
Foster, S. J., & Yeager, E. A. (1998). The role of empathy in the development of historical understanding. International Journal of Social Education, 13 (1), 1-7.
Jay, M. (2005). Songs of experience: Modern American and European variations on a universal theme . Berkeley : University of California Press.
Jenkins, K. & Brickley, P. (1989, April). Reflections on the empathy debate. Teaching History , 55 , 18-23.
Levstik, L. S. (1999, April). The well at the bottom of the world: Positionality and New Zealand [Aotearoa] adolescents' conceptions of historical significance. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal , Quebec .
Low-Beer, A. (1989, April). Empathy and history. Teaching History , 55 , 8-12.
Portal, C. (1987). The history curriculum for teachers . New York : Falmer Press.
Seixas, P. (1993). Historical understanding among adolescents in a multicultural setting. Curriculum Inquiry, 23 (3), 301-325.
Seixas, P. C. (1996). Conceptualizing the growth of historical understanding. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Handbook of education and human development: New models of learning, teaching, and schooling (pp. 765-783). Oxford , UK : Blackwell.
Seixas, P. (1997). The place of history within social studies. In I. Wright & A. Sears (Eds.). Trends and issues in Canadian social studies (pp. 116-129). Vancouver , BC : Pacific Educational Press.
Shemilt, D. (1984). Beauty and the philosopher: Empathy in history and classroom. In A. K. Dickinson, P. J. Lee, & P. J. Rogers (Eds.), Learning history (pp. 3983). London : Heinemann.
VanSledright, B. (2001). From empathetic regard to self-understanding: Im/positionality, empathy, and historical contextualization. In O.L. Davis Jr., E.A. Yeager, & S.J. Foster (Eds.), Historical empathy and perspective taking in the social studies (pp. 51-68). Lanham , MD : Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
VanSledright, B., & Brophy, J. (1992). Storytelling, imagination and fanciful elaboration in children's historical reconstructions. American Educational Research Journal, 29 (4), 837-860.
Yeager, E. A., Foster, S. J., Maley, S. D., Anderson, T., & Morris III, J. W. (1998). Why people in the past acted as they did: An exploratory study in historical empathy. International Journal of Social Education, 13 (1), 8-24.
Yeager, E.A., & Doppen, F.H. (2001). Teaching and learning multiple perspectives on the use of the atomic bomb: Historical empathy in the secondary classroom. In O.L. Davis Jr., E.A. Yeager, & S.J. Foster (Eds.), Historical empathy and perspective taking in the social studies (pp. 97-114). Lanham , MD : Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.