The start of a new semester may not be the best time for deep existential questions, but I like to ask them anyway.
Why are we here?
I’m not asking metaphysically, however, but rather in the more immediate sense. I return to the question every time I start a new set of classes, largely because I feel like that if students ask me, I ought to have a decent answer. For many of my students, particularly those in their first year, it’s not exactly clear why they are taking a History course when they’re majoring in Accounting, or Biology, or Engineering, or whatever. There’s a bevy of excellent and worthy reasons for studying History, yet sometimes I think we’ve so thoroughly internalized them that we think our students see them more explicitly than they actually do. So when asked “why are we here,” like the fish who can’t explain water, we often fall back on vague references to “critical thinking” and “understanding how we got here,” which sound like the pedagogical equivalent of “it builds character.” But that’s not good enough for either them or me. It’s an important exercise, I believe, to reflect on not just how we teach history, but also why we do it. The clarity we can get from asking ourselves why we do what we do sets the tone for a fruitful and fulfilling semester.
This year, in the midst of the dumpster fire masquerading as our political discourse, the question presents itself more urgently than usual. The mainstreaming of white nationalism under the benign-sounding label of “alt-right” has laid bare how the US has failed to untie the Gordian knot of racism. It’s well-nigh impossible to miss the ways in which privilege and power—along racial, socioeconomic, or cultural lines—shape our daily lives, unless one is willfully ignorant. And for me, that’s this semester’s answer to the “why” question: I teach history to make it impossible for students to willingly or comfortably ignore this type of phenomena.
Willful ignorance of, for example, the conditions to which the Black Lives Matter movement is responding, or the ways in which gender is shaping the media coverage of this year’s presidential election, is a decision made from a position of privilege, and one that stems from a profound lack of empathy. One does not need to agree with a movement to at least fathom the circumstances which produced that movement. One does not need to support a particular candidate to be troubled by the manner in which her gender affects the coverage of the campaign. The ability to foster that awareness, that ability to empathize with the Other, is what historical study can shape so effectively. Developing a sense of what we might call historical empathy is one of the most important outcomes, I believe, for students who take a history course. In a US history survey, for example, students who engage with the antebellum debates over slavery and expansion get, on one level, a basic awareness of how slavery and freedom were such contested concepts in US history. But more importantly, they also have to wrestle with the question of how someone could vigorously defend chattel slavery as a morally just institution. Moreover, they are confronted (some of them for the first time) with the searing historical testimony of enslaved peoples. For students, historical empathy is the essential beginning of trying to understand the worldview of those who occupied places so foreign to their own experiences.
Empathy does not mean agreement, though we often use the concept as if it did. To empathize in the historical sense is to understand from someone else’s frame of reference. Students who encounter slavery in their US history class have to try and understand how proslavery ideology could emerge from a particular frame of reference. So too do we ask them to empathize with the enslaved; to try and understand a frame of reference shaped by the violence and “social death” of slavery. This is the deeper understanding of history we try to promote in our classes; it goes beyond a surface-level memorization of facts and engages both intellect and emotion to produce learning that is both meaningful and lasting.
In my experience, students struggle with this idea of empathy, because “empathy” and “sympathy” are so often conflated. Students are averse to the idea of empathizing with people and ideas that seem antithetical to their own values, because they think they’re being asked to sympathize with, for example, those who opposed women’s suffrage, or favored Indian removal, or believed Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist. Getting students to see that to understand and to agree are distinct intellectual tasks enables them to move beyond the sort of linear thinking, and inability to tolerate ambiguity, that many of them bring with them to college. Creating a learning environment in which students can practice the type of critical thinking and deep reading that historical empathy requires is a challenge, but the benefits for both us and our students make the enterprise worth it. My goal for all of my classes this semester is to try and create precisely that type of space. If we mean what we say about higher education being the foundation of a truly democratic society, then history courses are an important—I’d argue essential—part of that. A sense of historical empathy helps render the abstract tangible, the seemingly impersonal urgently personal, and the apparently distant compellingly close. It helps us understand how context and contingency both shape the ways in which we arrived at our present. And it involves a conscious intellectual effort to understand and comprehend worldviews different from our own. Would that all of this were more present in our public discourse.
I don’t know if I’m going to unload all of that on the student who asks why they have to take History when they’re an Accounting major. But I can tell them the short answer: it’ll make you a better thinker, and we need all of those we can get right now. That’s why I’m teaching history to future accountants and engineers and whoever else comes into the class. That’s why I’m here.