What is historical empathy? Here’s a textbook definition (from “Empathy: A Historical Concept):
In the historical context, the concept of empathy is much more than just seeing a person, idea or situation through the eyes of another, but rather is a much deeper understanding of the circumstances and concepts surrounding the event. Questioning how and why someone acted in a particular way would need to involve knowledge circumstances and an understanding of bias. Moreover, there would need to be an inquiry into the author of the text and an idea of the time and place in which the event occurred, while also considering changing social practices and ideals over time. Evidently, it is an empathetic understanding rather than just an emotional understanding; an individual must instead adopt a third person view where it is not what they personally would do in the situation, but what the individual in question did in relation to their own circumstances. Such positioning would encourage a more balanced, equitable view of history, which allows for a greater depth of understanding and insight into the content which is being discussed.
I am a history buff. I have read all of the major biographies on the founding fathers and other famous American historical figures (e.g., Abraham Lincoln). Recently, I read a biography about Robert E. Lee that was written by Jonathan Horn titled, The Man Who Would Not Be Washington. In school. we didn’t learn much about the General of the Confederacy, other than he led the secessionist forces and ultimately surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. However, Lee is an intriguing historical figure.
The title of the book is the ultimate juxtaposition – as Washington was “the man who would not be king.” I don’t want to give the details away, but Lee married into the Washington bloodline and he was forced to choose between the Union he fought for and the state he called his home (Virginia). He did not support secession, and he was forced to make a choice that ultimately sealed his fate. I could not begin to understand the conflicts that people had in the Civil War era. Families were divided, and not just by geography. The Union was on the verge of collapse. You have to read the book to understand to a small degree what Lee was dealing with, how his views were shaped, and why he made the decisions he made. The reader may not support those decisions, but if you use historical empathy, you can understand them.
This is how our children must be taught history – why choices were made in the circumstances afforded them. This is why history should not be taught through a politically biased lens. And we must tread cautiously when taking steps to amend an AP U.S. History Curriculum so that we do not forget the concept of historical empathy.