Historical Empathy

Ethan Schmidt

This week a history professor at Delta State University in Mississippi was shot and killed while he worked in his campus office. Ethan Schmidt specialized in Native American and colonial U.S. history.

On average, 44 people are murdered every day in the United States. Thus it may seem odd for One Thing After Another to draw attention to the death of one particular person we did not know and whose work we had only seen in passing. But this is not simply a moment to mourn a fellow historian. Our notice of his death—amid many other news reports of deaths of all kinds—raises an important civic and professional question.

How do we—as humans or as historians—decide with whom to empathize, to whom to give sympathy? Right now no one knows why Dr. Schmidt was murdered, likely by a colleague in his own department. (This event is too recent for anyone to have a clear idea of what exactly happened; this post is working with the news as currently known). Clearly One Thing After Another’s status as a blog written by history professors might encourage us to empathize with the violent death of “one of our own.” But that same human impulse to feel for those similar to us often gets us into trouble when we write our histories. It is not a coincidence that the histories produced by historians have long reflected the historians themselves.
For a long time history was written by privileged white males about primarily privileged white males. Now history books reflect the broad diversity of human experience and of professional historians themselves. Slaves are getting as much study as slaveowners, while studies of social movements rival those of prominent figures. But empathy for the people of the past whose beliefs fundamentally contradict our own is still hard. Some historians manage it. Katherine Blee wrote an outstanding book sympathetic with the white women who found in the Ku Klux Klan an important tool for controlling their own often abusive white husbands. Christopher Browning worked hard to understand the motivations of those “ordinary men” who were transformed from policemen, dockworkers and truck drivers into the agents of Hitler’s final solution.

Recently I attended a conference of historians and talked with a colleague who had finally finished a long-anticipated biography. I was shocked to hear her say, “By the end of my research I did not like Elizabeth Bonaparte much [wife of Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother], but I still find her fascinating.” How could one give up hours and days and years of time from family and friends and enjoyable things to study someone she did not actually like? Because, the scholar said, studying that person gave us insight into very important currents, ideas, and beliefs in the early decades of the American republic. The scholar never liked the Elizabeth Bonaparte or her choices, but this historian was impressed by Elizabeth Bonaparte’s determination to thrive in elegant society as the former wife of a famous Frenchman, rather than the divorcée with a small child and no means of support that she had—to her great regret—become. It is somewhat surprising that no one had chosen to write about the famous wife of Jérôme Bonaparte before this. But historians are far more likely to take on topics they feel connected to or historical errors they feel a need to right, than unpopular people or topics for whom they feel no empathy.

It would be all too easy to close these thoughts with a comment that One Thing After Another is grateful that relations within our history department are so cordial that the murder of a fellow colleague seems unthinkable! But does empathy require us to pause and think, not about the historian who was killed, but about the social scientist whom police think killed him? Should we wonder what might have driven a well-liked scholar to the point of murder? There is always fascination in studying murderers, partly to solve historical mysteries and perhaps because we are fascinated by those who break the most fundamental of human rules—thou shalt not kill. But we rarely study the murderer with sympathy or empathy. This may be because to empathize publicly with a murderer often results in such condemnation as to make historical study politically unfeasible. But if we want to know the past and all that has made our society and ourselves what we are, we cannot romanticize or ignore the parts or the people we wish were not there—or those we simply do not care about. Perhaps empathy, the ability to understand and feel with the people of the past, even those we would prefer not to understand, is a skill historians need to practice more broadly. Even so, we are unlikely to completely supplant our human nature to sympathize with those most similar to us. In this case, it is another history professor, whose third book will remain unwritten forever.

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