Voting for Nazis: Cultivating Empathy in The Secondary History Classroom

Alana Speth discusses helping students to find 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.

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 judgments 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.

Alana Speth

Alana Speth teaches European history at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she constantly endeavors to instill a sense of connection between her students and the past. As a voracious reader and learner, she was well-versed in the liberal arts before beginning an earnest study of classical education upon joining The Covenant School’s faculty and attending SCL’s annual conference in 2014. A native of rural Pennsylvania, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a master’s degree from The College of William and Mary. She lives in a century-old farmhouse in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, surrounded by books.

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