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Empathy Critics

Chris McGovern, in a radio interview, gave the example of a question, 'You are a German U-boat captain, whose U-boat is sinking'; describe your feelings' to criticise the idea of empathy in history teaching. The historian Jonathan Clark claimed in a media interview that empathy questions were essentially about 'supporting the underdog' and had a seditious political motivation. I can remember exam questions such as 'You are the American pilot who has just dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, describe your feelings', and have encountered quite a lot of 'Imagine you are a soldier at the Battle of X' exercises. Does this mean that empathy is really about imaginative and descriptive writing, and is properly the domain of the English Department, or is it a case of seizing on weak examples to rubbish the whole concept?

Some critical comments:

"One trial paper reads 'Write a speech to be made by a representative of the PLO. This speech will justify the actions: the hijacking of an aircraft to Jordan in 1970, the shootings at Tel Aviv airport, and the attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games' This sounds like a very sick party game." (Sir Rhodes Boyson M.P. TES, 1988)
"The appeal in our last newsletter for details of the teaching of empathy and the Hitler Youth has been successful. The Teachers' Resource Book for The Modern World.... offers horrific stereotypes for empathy exercises. This from those who teach the avoidance of stereotypes and bias! Great play is made of the proportional representation system of elections and 'factual recall questions should be awarded 1 mark! Interesting questions offered for pupils include 'Would you like to live in a society where the rich and hard working get better rewards, more pay and more privileges than the working class?', 'Would you dislike to live in a society where everyone is equal?', 'Would you object to industry being run by workers' committees?', 'Would you object if rich capitalists were imprisoned?', 'Do you hate Communists?'The implications are clear. New history is not about knowledge or content, but changing attitudes and values. Hardly real education as we would understand it!"

(From Campaign for Real Education Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1989)

"History teachers are undermining children's knowledge and respect for our heritage, it is claimed. Knowledge of historical events and their significance is being replaced by the 'bogus' skills of empathy learning, according to educationalist Stewart Deuchar. Mr Deuchar, of the Campaign for Real Education, a right wing parents' pressure group, believes children are being indoctrinated into assessing the past along left wing lines. This means playing down the facts and undervaluing Britain's achievements. Instead of understanding the significance of the Battle of Agincourt, they are being told to imagine how English troops felt about taking part in it, he complains. Not surprisingly, pupils give the sort of answers which could have applied in any battle down the ages.

('History teachers who tamper with the past', Stephen Bates, Daily Mail, 3 January 1989)


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