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Shemilt, D. “Beauty and the Philosopher: Empathy in History and Classroom.” In Learning History, edited by A. K. Dickinson, P. J. Lee, & P. J. Rogers, 39–84. London: Heinemann, 1984.


Many historians consider that having empathy is important when studying history, while others view it as unhistorical or fraudulent. This makes it difficult for teaching history using empathy as described by the author. There are not only issues as to whether empathy should be taught but also how it should be taught. The article begins with a discussion that includes the use of empathetic reconstruction in history whereby the historian attempts to place oneself into the mindset or shoes of someone in history to determine why they made the decisions and actions that they did. Also historical empathy, as described by the author, can be viewed as historians becoming “time travelers” and placing their own bias on a situation rather than trying to place themselves into the situation. He states that it is simple to think of reasons why something happened in the past but it is difficult to pinpoint which are correct. He describes the historian’s attitude towards the past as one of humility. According to the author, history begins and ends with common sense and everyday empathy. He continues by describing historical explanation, which is about covering laws through the use of science and math equations. He states that historians attempt to tell history as it was in the past instead of discussing what might be legitimately said about the past, which is more relevant to the author. He describes historical narrative as a rope, which includes action and event, and that problems arise when the two become tangled.

The author continues with a section discussing historical empathy and adolescents and how they view people in the past through five stages: sense of superiority, assumption of shared humanity and stress of motives, everyday empathy applied in history, historical empathy and empathetic methodology. Secondly the author discusses how adolescents construct the intended actions of people in the past through five different stages: dissociation of actions and events, a super ordinate fate, teleological explanations, the genesis of casual explanation and the articulation of empathetic and causeual explanations.

The author concludes with twelve examples of how historical empathy can be taught and assessed in the secondary history classroom such as drama, biographies, games and simulations, exercises linking culture and economy, etc. These examples can be placed within two different categories of empathetic response, descriptive and explanatory.

Erika Smith