On Doing History: Empathy & Accuracy in the Undergraduate Classroom

Many years ago, I served as the benevolent dictator of Simon Fraser’s History Student Union. As part of a fundraiser, we designed t-shirts, which we sold to students and faculty (mine, sadly, wore out quite some time ago). They were simple affairs—in grey—with SFU History emblazoned on the front and Winston Churchill’s famous quip:

History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it.

on the back. As memory serves, the t-shirts sold rather well.

As with so many famous quotations, there’s always some question as to whether they are true or imagined and the context in which they were said. “Play it again, Sam,” from Casablanca, for example, serves as a pop culture version of the same phenomenon, or Voltaire, who never said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And so, with Churchill, there’s no direct record of him having said the above. According to some accounts he told Stalin and Roosevelt at the 1943 Tehran Conference that “History will judge us kindly,” and, when asked how he could be so confident, he replied: “because I shall write the history” (which he did, of course, in a massive tome on the Second World War). Other accounts have Churchill saying in 1948 in a House of Commons Speech: “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.” In both cases, the spirit of the misquotation is very much evident, albeit in rather different contexts. And it’s entirely likely that intending to “write history” was the kind of clever double entendre to which Churchill might willingly have referred more than once. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. And I’m not a Churchill scholar, so I’m not especially invested in finding out.

The above raises a couple of points that have had me thinking a bit in recent weeks. One to do with accuracy. And the other to do with empathy. Both notions are inspired by activities in my HIST 2EE3, Science & Technology in World History course, which I am currently teaching. The course is one of my favourites insofar as it surveys not just an extensive swath of human history, but also because it allows me to introduce a whole host of fascinating questions in the histories of science and technology, many of which I consider more carefully in my upper level courses. It is also an especially exciting course, because it attracts students from all over campus, and sitting in on a tutorial complete with humanities, social science, science, engineering, health science, and business students is absolutely riveting. Watching them bring diverse training and background into tutorial discussions is really stimulating and can ignite really intelligent conversation and debate.

At the same time, introducing students to historical practice can be a tough sell. To many students across campus, history is a form of collecting—remembering names and dates and putting them in the right order. Oh, and storytelling. Historical interpretation seems alien. After all, what is there to debate about? The past has already occurred and we know what happened. Well, sort of. But this is somewhat similar to early natural philosophers separating the study of causes from the study of laws. If early modern natural philosophers were unable to explain causes, they could examine the laws of what occurred. Similarly, in a variety of ways, historians chart change and continuity over time, working with what we can know. For the most part, we weren’t there; we can’t possibly know exactly what motivations led to the.We collect information to ask questions, to examine which factors contributed more or less heavily to the unfolding of certain events. And while we draw on data and “facts” to do so, there is no obvious manner—beyond meticulous, exhaustive research—to definitively prove our findings. Which is why History Departments tend to live in Humanities or Arts faculties. It is why I invariably finish my lectures with “but it’s more complicated than that.”

So: accuracy. In history, accuracy matters. But I don’t mean to subscribe to the kind of pedantry that stalls good historical analysis on whether or not Churchill actually, exactly said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Accuracy matters. Getting dates, names, and the minutiae of history right is a big part of what historians do, but it is not what we do. Or all we do. We interpret. Not whimsically, but with careful and well-developed thoughts and evidence to support our arguments. But we also take for granted that we have carefully and accurately presented our chronologies and are more interested in debating the merits of a scholarly work’s arguments than the pedantry associated with a throwaway quotation, which is clearly more rhetorical flourish than it is key cog in the historical analysis. This is actually a much bigger issue, but I raise this as something of an open letter to students (undergraduate and graduate) who seem intent on rejecting everything they read. There seems to be a creeping cynicism—we’re well past skepticism—that means every book, every article is hopeless flawed. And to pick on the accuracy of a quotation, for example, is evidence enough that the rest of the work doesn’t warrant our attention.

Of course, it is easy to find fault with any historical analysis, especially if one is already committed to disliking it before even beginning, but I should like to challenge students to look instead for the more positive elements of a work. Because they are there, too. What can you take from a particular reading? Before ranting, what are the work’s merits? Because I think a singular commitment to tearing down a piece of work is lazy. And it is not in the spirit of trying to connect with the past.

How do we go about this, connecting with the past? I’m a big proponent of history’s contemporary relevance—that historical context offers crucial knowledge that helps us to inform decisions in the present. Which means I’m often studying history with one eye on the present. My research and the topics and questions that interest me typically stress making history relevant in twenty- first century political and cultural discourse. That is to say, I engage in a kind of contemporary history in which I try to bring valuable historical context to current debate. There’s a dangerous trap for undergraduate students in this approach, though: while many of the themes that drive my research are grounded in presentist issues, I am—first and foremost—an historian. In my classes, so are they. Their reflections on course readings, their research inquiries, and their papers should reflect good historical analysis and not be tempted to drift into philosophical or political assertions of what “ought” to be. Historians look backward on “what was” as a means of contributing to a larger discussion about the human condition, not as a means of forecasting an ideal future. In spite of the numerous siren calls that present themselves throughout the study of history, it is imperative that historians—students and professors alike—cling to history as a discipline, methodology, and mode of inquiry.

Related, then: empathy. This is a harder sell in a class with a number of students who are not History students. It is only too natural (and too easy) to judge the past on our terms rather than on its own. To properly treat the past fairly requires being able to step back in time with both feet and to embrace the values, systems, motivations of historical actors without imposing upon them the 21st-century sensibilities. This involves asking what various actors did and why, without judging them. It requires not attributing contemporary qualifications or values to past actions. The past deserves to be studied on its own, in isolation from present comparisons (which is all too popular among undergraduate students and often a lazy way of avoiding the hard historical work).

I love history. I was initially drawn to aspects of narrative and storytelling, not to mention the value of great stories. But I came to be equally fascinated with its practice, trying to accomplish the impossible task of disappearing into the past in order to best understand what drove historical change. And the joy of the hunt: the search for documents, letters, articles that give shape to the contours of the past.