History classes teach empathy, too


photo provided by Gina Tam

“Why should I take a history class, Dr. Tam?”

Indeed, this question is one that those of us in the humanities often are forced to address. In a world where our college graduates are increasingly wary of their job prospects in an uncertain economy, an education in history seems at best tangential to students’ broader career goals, and at worst a waste of time.

Certainly, few conceptions could be further from the truth. Study after study shows that history majors fare quite well on the job market.

They find themselves in a wide array of jobs in the public and private sectors. Their skills in written communication, critical thinking and research acumen are highly sought after, from Wall Street and Silicon Valley to the global marketplace.

Yet I do not want to make the case here for our discipline’s marketable, transferable skills. Rather, I would like to highlight something that history teaches us uniquely, one of the chief skills that an education in the historical method highlights in a way that few other disciplines can. That skill is empathy.

As historians, our job is to gather evidence from the past, and use that evidence to explain how or why things happen. Unlike our colleagues in the natural sciences, our evidence does not come from a laboratory where we can carefully control variables. Our evidence comes from material traces that people of the past left behind.

It is always, therefore, the product of human creation. These things are unreliable; sometimes they outright lie to us. Given this, historians approach our evidence with two considerations.

The first is that we have to be critical about the kinds of information we can actually trust from its content. The second is that we have to treat each of our source’s creators as complex, three-dimensional human beings with their own agendas, desires and beliefs.

This means that when we read something by someone we agree with, we cannot take what they say at face value just because we agree. We have to offer thoughtful context about how the broader events of the past, and the author’s own experiences, might shape their beliefs.

Most importantly, we must examine the author’s words with the same critical eye we might something with which we disagree. When we read something that makes us uncomfortable — a common experience for those of us, like myself, who study past conceptualizations of race or gender — we still have to take what those authors say seriously.

We have to treat them as individuals who come from a particular cultural environment, and critically engage with their arguments rather than dismiss them out of hand.

This does not mean we have to agree with them. It does not mean that we do not have to double check obvious inconsistencies. It simply means that we have to treat them with the same empathy we would expect scholars of the future to treat us, regardless of how questionable the evidence we leave behind may be.

In a world that feels hopelessly polarized, such empathy helps us to better understand and communicate with one another.

If I can articulate clearly the views of someone of the past whose views I don’t share, and try to understand how their personal experiences and broader historical context inform their choices, I have a better understanding of the context in which they are writing. I am better able to articulate how my own cultural context shapes my reactions to them.

This makes us better critical thinkers, but also, better citizens, able to see the flawed humanity in all of us, past and present.

And so, I expect to see every one of you in my fall class.