In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Empathy

  1. Kikayon: I believe the study of history is to teach students how to understand people who are different from them. They don’t have to like them or agree with them, but they need to understand them. (Empathy is not sympathy). As I have argued in multiple places, but most prominently in *Why Study History?*, we need more of this kind of understanding (empathy) in our democracy and history is one of the best ways to teach it. History is the discipline where we suspend judgment (at least primarily and overtly) in order to understand. Those who want to use the study of the past to primarily teach moral lessons–disgust, social justice, etc…–are simply engaged in politics. These are the same people–and I know many of them–who will balk when someone uses history to teach a political agenda that differs from them. They like Howard Zinn, but criticize David Barton. In fact Zinn and Barton are just mirror images.


  2. I’m genuinely curious, John. You write, “When we let something like ‘disgust’ drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.” How is a classroom driven by empathy not, also, a place that foregrounds ethics or moral philosophy? Empathy is an ethical stance grounded in moral philosophy, no less than disgust or lament would be.

    You seem to want to have it both ways: “My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically [academic discipline]–to walk in others shoes [ethical formation] and try to understand the ‘foreign country’ that is the past [academic discipline again].” Another historian might say, “My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically [academic discipline]–to understand past examples of justice and injustice [ethical formation] and to trace historical antecedents for contemporary events [academic discipline again].”

    You can certainly say that this isn’t how you, personally, would teach history, but it is not fair to say that it is not a valid way of teaching history, because it does the same things that your approach does, just somewhat differently. In other words, it isn’t that the second approach moralizes and yours does not; neither approach is morally neutral.


  3. Thank you for addressing the plenary speaker. I’m still grappling with it. I was a first time attendee at the conference who is a practicing Catholic from those dioceses. I read that report the day it came out and recognized my grandparents’ church, those of my aunts and uncles, my friends–my undergraduate college. The sites of baptisms and weddings and funerals for people I love. I hope to write my dissertation on 19th century Catholicism in Pennsylvania so my work life feels completely disrupted by this scandal as well. The diocese I grew up in is now facing its own crisis. I did not remain for the entire session–quite frankly, it was just too emotionally compromising. Orsi reacted with disgust and while I share that disgust, the larger emotion I feel is my heartbreaking.

    These thoughts are incoherent and much more poorly written than I would normally submit for public readership. I enjoyed every other aspect of the conference and met some wonderful people. I just haven’t figured out how to grapple with Orsi’s remarks as both a budding scholar and a Catholic.


  4. Great perspective John! If we lose this keen focus on empathy in the historical discipline (writing and the classroom) we lose much of what makes history such a meaningful pursuit. Well stated.


  5. “If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.”

    Hear, hear. All credit to you for presenting history — good and bad, as you say — and not ideology in the classroom.

    Unfortunately, it is my belief (see the late Howard Zinn and others like him who explicitly argue that historical research should serve present-day political ends) that a disturbing number of historians have long since abandoned balanced, comprehensive, empirically responsible scholarship in favor of “doing something other than history.” To wit: picking sides and proselytizing for a particular world view.

    I’d be interested to know whether you agree — as a guy on the inside, so to speak — that this corruption of the study of history (and many other academic disciplines), the elevation of political goals over scholarly goals, is a growing problem within the academy.


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