One of the greatest lessons we have to learn from the study of history is the importance of empathy. But so often, students don’t understand this. They hear about events that seem totally irrelevant and can’t help but think: This was so long ago! They’re all dead now! How does this impact me?
So to keep history from feeling distant or dull, we take an empathetic approach at Morgan Park Academy.
Our history teachers ask students to try on another’s shoes and go for a walk, understand where they were coming from, analyze the events of the time and consider why these individuals did what they did, and look into all the consequences of these decisions.
In teaching this way, we take time to acknowledge to our students that people are complex; that decisions are not made in a vacuum; and that from this there is value both to understanding the past and in gaining insight to understanding ourselves and others.
To approach history as merely a series of dates and facts and places to be memorized is to do a serious disservice to the discipline itself, to the people of the past, and most important, to students who are desperately trying to make sense of the world in which they are growing up.
History should be interesting. It’s about us, for crying out loud! We study history to learn about being human. We study history to make sense of the conflicting visions of love and hate that surround us in our world today. We study history to understand our seemingly small role on this big, blue marble.
James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Baldwin understood the value in learning and practicing empathy. Empathy is being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. One hundred years ago, British psychologist Edward B. Titchener first defined empathy as the power of projecting one’s personality in the object of contemplation and feeling into the experience and emotions of others.
When we approach history from an empathetic position, we help students understand that they are not alone and encourage them to see the value in and consequence of looking at events from various perspectives.
Teaching one-sided stories about the past to students who are walking into the most globally diverse and technologically connected society in history is not only bad history, it’s ignorant and does nothing to prepare them to look at current events critically nor does it give them the tools to solve them.
Looking back, most of us can acknowledge that it was wrong to teach for so many years that Christopher Columbus “discovered America,” but we still have a federal holiday in his honor.
Our students see the hypocrisy in this, so why do we still sweep aside what really happened? At MPA, we don’t. We focus on and teach our students to question why there is so frequently one side of history presented and why it is imperative to explore the other. We pull out the primary sources and have students look critically at what the “discoverers” of America actually did to the natives when they arrived. Not surprisingly, in those classes there are some great discussions!
From Middle School through Upper School, students are encouraged to challenge the textbook, and to question the interpretation of the past, and to inquire who the writers of this history are and ponder their motivations. There are valuable lessons to the past and to the present to be gained when we look at history this way.
Going well beyond old-fashioned textbooks, we must use primary sources, witnesses, historical novels, plays, re-enactments, and more as supplements or even substitutes for classic textbooks, to help bring the past to life and build empathy in all students.
Using texts in the Upper School like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” allows students to see the power of everyday people in shaping the world. History students at Morgan Park Academy also participate in a lot of Socratic discussion of ideas. They receive background information through textbooks, but also investigate motives, perspectives, and outlooks.
When students make the connection that the events they are studying involved people not much different than them and in many cases distinctly similar, they begin to see themselves in the people of the past — on both sides of history. They learn empathy, which they can take with them as they enter the diverse world that is theirs today, helping them understand present day conflicts and encouraging them to breakdown prejudices and empowering them to be change-makers in their world.
To teach with this focus has its difficulties and requires us to abandon the belief that we have to race through a certain amount of curriculum by a particular date. Teaching history empathetically by its very design requires time to go deeper into a time period to make those connections to the people of that time.
Human beings are complex. If we really want children to learn about history as a series of decisions made by complex individuals and groups of people, to analyze their motives, and to explore the impact of these decisions on others, we have to be willing to take the time to dig deeper.
By Colleen Amberg
Mrs. Amberg teaches Middle School Social Studies and English and is our Social Studies Curriculum Leader. She also directs our Middle School Global Studies program.