servitude was a preparatory discipline … at worst, it added only one more lord … to an array of lordly passions under which human nature already groaned….
Southern’s explanation—and of course this is only a short excerpt, not a full explanation even of the narrow issue of why people might choose serfdom—relies on the reconstruction of past beliefs and values using historical evidence. Empathy is not a special faculty for getting into other people’s minds, but an understanding we achieve if we entertain ideas very different from our own. “Entertaining” ideas here denotes more an achievement than a special sort of process. It is where we arrive when, on the basis of evidence, we can say how someone might have seen things. It requires hard thinking and use of the evidence we have in a valid way. Empathy, however, is not just having the inert knowledge that people saw things in the way they did, but also being able to use that knowledge to make sense of what was done. This is not a matter of having an emotional bond. In history we must empathize with ideas we might oppose in the unlikely event we came across exactly the same ideas in the present. If understanding people in the past required shared feelings, history would be impossible. Understanding the hopes of the Pilgrims means entertaining their beliefs and values and knowing that they had those hopes. But we cannot now share the hopes—feel them ourselves—even if we want to, because to hope for something means to see it as a possible outcome, and our hindsight allows us to know that the outcome did not occur. Similarly, we cannot experience the fear felt by people in Britain in 1940 that Hitler might triumph and occupy their country. The same holds for a great deal of history.
None of this is to say that we do not want students to care about people in the past. If they treat people in the past as less than fully human and do not respond to those people’s hopes and fears, they have hardly begun to understand what history is about.11 But people in the past can appear to be strange and sometimes to do peculiar things (things we would not do) and so it is not always easy for students to accord them respect.
Partly because students tend to think about people in the past as not having what we have, and partly because they encounter decisions or ways of behaving that are difficult to make sense of, they tend to write off people in the past as not as smart as we are. (Evidence for the ideas described below goes back nearly 30 years and appears to have survived through a variety of changes in teaching.)12 Students are quite capable of assuming that people in the past did not understand or do very basic things. A highly intelligent eighth grader, puzzling out why the Saxons might have used the ordeal of cold water to discover whether someone was guilty of a crime, declares, “But we know that nowadays if you ain’t got air you’re dead, but they didn’t.” An exchange between two eighth graders, this time about the ordeal of hot water, shows a similar disposition to write off the past:13