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Voting for Nazis: Cultivating Empathy in the Secondary History Classroom

Teaching European history to 15- and 16-year-olds presents dual challenges. One must get students genuinely invested in events of the past before getting them to empathize with people and situations they perceive as different from themselves. There are two significant barriers that must be overcome: lack of humility and possession of too much information. Without humility, empathy is restricted to those most like ourselves. If we can, in turn, recognize aspects of our own humanity in those we deem villainous or least like us, we are better equipped to recognize aspects of our own humanity in anyone and everyone. Nazi Germany therefore presents a perfect historical situation for this approach – secondary students invariably have pre-existing knowledge and pre-conceived judgements about this period of history. Finding aspects of their own humanity in these undeniable villains of modern history forces students to reevaluate their historical worldview and, in turn, their relationship to the present.