Historical Empathy for the Past and Present
An Approach to Teaching, Learning, and Doing History

Eyewitness Canada invites professional authors to explore their distinct research and experiences across a diverse range of government, military, Indigenous, educational and heritage backgrounds. It invites readers to reflect on how the lessons and challenges of the past shaped the present and impact decisions made today. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

In this article, Sara Karn explores her research on historical empathy and its significance for teachers, learners, and historians. She suggests that empathy—and the associated emotions and feelings that arise while learning about people in the past—has implications for understanding historical perspectives and experiences, as well as living better with others in the present. Karn further demonstrates how the affective dimensions of historical empathy can be used to counter the longstanding repression of emotions in history education, and in history as a discipline more generally.

MY EXPERIENCES as a history teacher led me to researching empathy in history education. As I witnessed students connecting deeply with the past—whether in the history classroom, on overseas study tours, or local experiential learning opportunities—I began asking questions: How might learning about the past build skills and dispositions that can help us empathize with historical actors as well as other people in the present? And what are some of the associated problems and challenges? And so, I set about designing a study on historical empathy, a topic which has been largely ignored within history education research in Canada.

Historical empathy can be viewed as a cognitive-affective process that involves attempting to understand the thoughts, feelings, experiences, decisions, and actions of people in the past, within their particular historical contexts. In my research, I outline a theory of historical empathy that includes five elements: (1) evidence and contextualization, (2) informed historical imagination, (3) historical perspectives, (4) ethical judgments, and (5) caring. I argue that a powerful pedagogical approach to historical empathy includes all five elements and integrates both their cognitive (thinking) and affective (feeling) dimensions—dimensions that are highly interconnected and cannot be separated.

Visual representation of historical empathy as described in the post. A five-pointed star is labelled "historical empathy." The points are labelled “evidence and contextualization,” “informed historical imagination,” “historical perspectives,” “ethical judgments,” and “caring.”

The above diagram highlights a cognitive-affective framework of historical empathy that includes five elements: evidence and contextualization, informed historical imagination, historical perspectives, ethical judgments, and caring. [Author’s Image]

When I refer to the “affective dimensions” (plural) this is intentional as there are different ways in which emotions and feelings take shape while studying the past, whether for the professional historian or the high school student. There is a past-oriented dimension to affect, which involves an awareness that emotions caused people in the past to believe certain things and take certain actions, in relation to the situations and conditions of the time in which they lived. In other words, we analyze evidence and context to understand historical actors’ thoughts and feelings. At the same time, affective responses are also likely to arise within the person who is attempting to understand historical actors’ perspectives and grapple with difficult historical topics. These emotions and feelings impact how people engage with history.

In bringing attention to empathy and affect within history education, I hope to create more meaningful learning experiences for students at all levels and across different contexts, as well as support a variety of learning outcomes within and beyond the history classroom. As they attempt to understand historical actors’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, students develop historical thinking competencies related to perspective-taking, examining evidence, considering contexts, and forming ethical judgments. There are also significant opportunities for fostering students’ emotional awareness and nurturing a disposition for listening, all of which are important for empathizing with other people in the present. Being open-minded and demonstrating care towards perspectives different from one’s own can foster solidarity and relationality among different communities, which may contribute to building a more inclusive and equitable society.

This research also has implications for historians and their approaches to doing history. Specifically, the affective dimensions of historical empathy may open up new ways of thinking about how we study the past, the sources used, as well as whose perspectives and lived experiences are being centred in historical research. Drawing on methods used by historians of emotion, research across all fields of study might give greater consideration to how emotions and feelings motivated people to think or act in certain ways. A cautious use of imagination (informed by evidence and context) can be helpful, particularly when affective responses are not explicit within surviving traces of the past. At the same time, historians may be called to reflect on their own identities and how they shape what and who they care about studying. To counter the longstanding repression of emotion that still exists in society generally, as well as within the history discipline and history education specifically, I suggest that we more fully embrace the affective dimensions of studying history.

As I move forward with my research, I continue to seek opportunities to learn from teachers, students, and historians about their perspectives on historical empathy, and, in turn, share this work in ways that I hope will make a meaningful impact on teaching, learning, and doing history. Historical empathy allows us to imagine a future where we are more open to encountering others’ perspectives, seek to learn about their values and lived experiences, and care for the wellbeing of others and the natural world. I think this is a future in which we would all like to be a part.

Headshot of Sara Karn

Sara Karn is a Postdoctoral Fellow forThinking Historically for Canada’s Future, based at McMaster University. She received her PhD in Education from Queen’s University in 2023, and her MA in History from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2017. Her current research explores historical empathy within history education in Canada. Sara’s research has been published in journals including the Canadian Journal of Education, Historical Encounters, Rethinking History, and Canadian Military History. Sara is a certified K-12 teacher in Ontario, and has taught courses for pre-service teachers at Queen’s and Laurier