Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

9. Empathy: insight or illusion?

What all this has been leading to is a discussion of the vexed question of empathy. There is no doubt that empathy – the ability to feel what others feel – is a fundamental human attribute, made possible by the so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. On average men seem to possess rather less ‘mirror-neurons’ than women, which some scientists see as an evolutionary advantage given their need to hunt and to kill. In the 1960s empathy lay at the heart of a new kind of history teaching which saw a rejection of the chronological approach (kings, queens and battles, satirised so effectively by Sellars and Yeatman in ‘1066 & All That’) in favour of what were unflatteringly called ‘patches.’ A ‘patch’ was a particular period of the past, often one of those chosen by Longmans as a topic in their ground-breaking ‘Then & There’ series. Learners found themselves immersed in the culture of a particular place and time and invited to identify (empathise) with particular historical characters whose lives were at its centre.

The less able were believed to find ‘patch’ history easier and more rewarding than an endless procession of dates and battles and for this reason it was an approach that dominated the newly introduced Certificate of Secondary Examination (CSE) with its revolutionary incorporation of teacher-assessed course work. Like all fashions the new history became easy to satirise in its turn. Spoof examination questions like ‘Imagine you are a concentration camp guard. Say how you feel about the job you have to do…’ suggested limits to the kind of empathy we should encourage whilst more serious critics called the whole notion into question. Just how far can we identify with men and women in the past when we can never really see the world as they saw it, cut off from us as they are by barriers of language and belief? Surely straightforward facts would tell us more about what happened and why.

But is this true? Post-modern historians like Keith Jenkins see ‘history’ as no more than a pattern we impose on the past: it may make sense to us but is nothing like the real thing which we cannot know about because we were not there. History, in other words, is a castle built on sand, an argument given strength by the public’s appetite for costume dramas which manifestly distort history in order to make it ‘more sexy’. Thus the history teacher seems to be stuck between two extremes: on the one hand there is a past which is largely invented but is more fun; on the other hand there is a past that is dead and gone and is - by implication – meaningless.

It will already be apparent that I reject both extremes. It seems to me that the postmodernists are stuck in a relativist loop and that they are unwilling to distinguish between good and bad evidence, one of the key skills that the study of history should develop. I believe that there is a factual past – that which actually happened in order to produce the result we call ‘today’ - although our knowledge of it is incomplete, making it easy to make mistakes. The same is true of the present which most of us only know at second hand, through the lens of a television camera or the eyes of a journalist. What is certain is that there are no short cuts to the truth which, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘is seldom plain and never simple.’ ‘Know your society’ was the advice given to me by a great historian, which I took to mean ‘understand it from the inside.’ This means immersing yourself in the sources, not just those like the diary of Samuel Pepys which tells us so much about the mindset of Restoration England, but those which give us a clue to the ways in which people coped with the day to day routines of life. You could argue that the test of a good history book comes down to this: would it be of any help to me if I were to find myself back in the period in question? Who would be more useful as a guide to Tudor England, David Starkey or Geoffrey Elton? Apply this same test to the work of your learners: how far have they gone on a journey and how much real experience have they acquired?

Which brings us back to the Romans. As far as I know, no diary written by a Roman soldier stationed in Britain has survived. What we have instead are the Vindolanda tablets. These are like the contents of someone’s waste-paper basket – random messages from the past of the kind normally sent by e-mail today. The circumstances of their discovery are important. They were found deep in waterlogged ground within the remains of a wooden fort on the line of the future Hadrian’s Wall and seem to be part of an archive thrown out when the fort was demolished prior to reconstruction on a permanent basis. They consist of wafer-thin slices of wood, no bigger than a modern postcard, with ink messages written on them in the cursive handwriting used by Roman scribes for informal communications (in contrast to the much more formal lettering used for inscriptions and the like). They can be read using infra-red light and tell us much about the day to day life of soldiers and their officers at the start of the Second Century AD, when the frontier of the Roman province of Britannia had yet to be set in stone. From them we learn that the officers and their wives enjoyed a social life, visiting each other’s houses and celebrating birthdays. We know too that many soldiers were absent from the fort, either ill, on leave or on duty elsewhere, that they received presents, and that these presents included socks and subligaria, usually translated as ‘underpants’, though there’s no way of knowing what form they took.

The beauty of the Vindolanda tablets is that they were never intended as history. Whilst not falling into the post-modern trap of assuming all history is an invention of historians, there’s no doubt that the writing of history involves selection and that in the past this selection has been based upon what was thought to be worthy of record. As a result the great men and women of the past never seem to have ‘bad hair days’ or suffer from constipation. Seldom do we know what they liked to eat, what they took if they had a headache or how they kept clean. When these details emerge, often by accident, they help to bridge the psychological divide referred to earlier. In the case of Vindolanda and other forts such as Housesteads or Corbridge we also have the remains of the buildings themselves as well as a host of artefacts. And of course there is the landscape – the same that Roman soldiers on guard duty looked out upon nearly two millennia ago. As for the appearance of the soldiers there is the extraordinarily detailed representation of the Roman army on campaign that adorns the column of Trajan in Rome; this has been the primary source for all those Hollywood epics, including Gladiator.

Put all this evidence together and we have the makings of a three-dimensional world within which the imagination can work in a historical way. It’s still easy to slip into anachronisms: to have characters in a Roman story refer to weeks or potatoes but part of the value of any exercise in empathy is to eliminate these accidental falsehoods. As Sherlock Holmes is supposed to have said ‘when the impossible is eliminated, what remains is the truth’, and truth – as you very swiftly find with learners of any age – is what they really want, even when – paradoxically – it’s wrapped up in what appears to be make believe. What few people really like is a blurring of the frontier between the two – which is why the Harry Potter novels don’t work for me. They have some very contemporary aspects such as Harry’s initial ill-treatment by his foster-parents but far nastier things appear to happen to Harry when he escapes from that environment into the magical domain of Hogwarts. To me the nature of the evil that threatens Harry is never quite worked out. Is it an evil we should all fear, as is the case with Sauron in Lord of the Rings, or is it an evil that is specific to Harry, in which case it’s difficult to take seriously? In the next section we will be considering the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf which is the ancestor of so many of these kinds of story, as well as Superman and all his chums from the Marvel comics. Beowulf also seems to mix up the natural and the supernatural but its monsters are not in fact evil though they do evil things. On the contrary they are everything that is excluded by reason of our preference for the rational. Their anger arises – as anger so often does – from disappointed love. It is this that makes the appeal of the poem timeless.

For the moment let’s remind ourselves what made a Roman a Roman so that any story we write focussing upon the life of a soldier on Hadrian’s Wall is true to its subject. Firstly we have to be sure who we mean by the Romans. It’s well known that most of those who served on Hadrian’s Wall were not Roman or even Italian in origin. Some were auxiliary soldiers from Gaul. Others came from parts of Germany, like the emperor’s personal guard – the custodes corporis Germani. Legions may have had their own particular recruiting grounds: the Second Legion Augusta in Spain, for example. Wherever a recruit came from, he began his service by swearing an oath of allegiance to the Senate and People of Rome, which in practice meant the empire’s origins, its current ruler and the values and systems that it represented. Although legion fought legion from time to time they never fought against Rome. As soon as a particular episode of civil war was over the winners would issue coins with the theme of ‘restitution’: thanks to the success of this or that claimant Rome was herself again.

But what was being restored? In recent years it’s become fashionable to see the Roman Empire as an engine of exploitation. A selfish ruling class and its military protectors were maintaining themselves at the expense of millions of poor folk who laboured in fields or in proto-industrial sweatshops to sustain the rich in their lifestyle. What made the empire successful was the way it overcame the limitations of geography to impose this system on an area greater than had ever been seen before. The difficulty with this analysis is that ignores the fact that all ancient societies were unequal as are most modern societies, liberty and equality being incompatible in their purer forms. What there undoubtedly was in Ancient Rome was social mobility. Poor men could make their fortunes like the first century baker Eurysaces whose tomb was later built into the walls of Rome; those who were intelligent could rise to the highest positions in the state irrespective of their origins, the most notorious examples being the emperor Claudius’ freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus.

Mobility of a different kind meant that a fisherman from Galilee called Peter could bring the teachings of an obscure rabbi called Jesus to the eternal city, to be followed there by a Greek-speaking Roman citizen of Jewish origin called Paul, who would interpret those teachings to a non-Jewish audience. Such a free flow of people and ideas depended above all upon the rule of law and the existence of institutions to enforce it fairly. This is what the Roman Empire meant to its citizens. It’s what we still mean by ‘civilisation’.

Of course Roman inclusivity had its limits. Christians were persecuted from time to time because they did not sign up to the unifying concept of emperor-worship. They appeared to have put themselves ‘outside’ society as at other times Jews did. Our own society faces a similar dilemma to that experienced by the emperor Trajan (98-117 AD). Asked by his friend Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, what he should do with these awkward social misfits, some of whom seemed determined on martyrdom, Trajan adopts a policy very similar to that of a modern government faced with a minority who subscribe to a ‘higher’ law than that of the state. If they live quietly, he says, and do not provoke those around them, leave them alone. Two hundred years later when Christians had grown to be the largest minority in the empire, the then emperor Constantine would offer them the protection of the state in return for recognising him as the ‘equal of the apostles’. it was a devil’s bargain which some Christians have regretted ever since.

We are straying too far from our theme. What might be in the mind of an ordinary Roman soldier (who we will call Marcus), who we will pretend to find polishing his helmet one grey November afternoon, in a fort somewhere on Hadrian’s Wall? Firstly, for adult audiences, the question might be re-phrased ‘what else is on his mind?’, the assumption being that any red-blooded male with the leisure to do so, spends much of his time thinking about ‘sex’. However, ex-servicemen amongst my students tell me that food is more likely to be his most immediate concern – ‘when’s scoff?’ being the commonest question soldiers ask one another. Descriptions of modern warfare, such as those provided by Richard Holmes and Tim Collins, confirm what they say. Soldiers on campaign tend to be more concerned that wives and girlfriends are being faithful than with missing their embraces. Even more troubling may be the prospect of action, especially for the untried recruit. Armies are full of ‘old soldiers’ who have seen it all before and are very happy to terrify the inexperienced with tales of slaughter and atrocity. Only when the young soldier has himself been ‘bloodied’ does he become immune to this sort of persecution.

As far as living conditions are concerned, Roman soldiers would probably have thought their 21st century counterparts extremely fortunate. Those tiny barrack rooms without any obvious source of heat must have been freezing in winter and stifling in summer. Nor was there a comfortable mess to relax in. Each contubernium seems to have been responsible for its own cooking, which was presumably done outside. What did they eat? Bread certainly formed an important part of a Roman soldier’s diet, grain being issued on a daily basis and ground up by the soldiers themselves using stone hand-mills. The resulting wholemeal flour was mixed with water and baked in ovens let into the fortress walls. Bacon was popular with soldiers who came from warmer climates but beef, lamb and goat flesh were also eaten in large quantities. One imagines that most of it was stewed, as it’s easier to keep a stewpot going than prepare each meal from fresh. The Vindolanda tablets make it clear that the soldiers there bought in food from outside to supplement the monotony of their regular diet. There were other comforts too: all the soldiers living and serving on Hadrian’s Wall had access to centrally heated bath-houses for a Roman could not be a Roman unless he was clean. We may imagine that Marcus scraping of the day’s dust and dirt in the heat of the caledarium, before an invigorating plunge into the cold pool or frigidarium and a relaxing cup of wine in the moderate warmth of the tepidarium. In Rome itself, the public baths were some of the largest and most magnificent buildings in the city but Britain could boast some impressive facilities too. At the legionary fortress of Caerleon in South Wales the main exercise hall was as big as a small cathedral whilst the swimming pool or natatio was as long as a modern Olympic pool though only two lanes wide.

With so much background information we are not far away from being able to reconstruct Marcus’ day. If there was no fighting to be done – which was by far the most the most usual situation – he would probably spend most of it training or working. The Roman army did a host of other jobs in addition to defending the empire – building roads, bridges and forts, policing towns and cities, guarding important people. As we have seen the Vindolanda tablets also make it clear that the soldiers were sometimes on leave, sometimes ill, or away on special assignments far from their unit’s normal base. The emperor Hadrian placed a special emphasis on fitness: practice swords and shields were heavier than those used in normal combat to develop strength and muscular control. Such methods, together with the comradeship of his ‘brothers’ gave Marcus the confidence to face the terrifying experience of ancient warfare. ‘Few men are born brave,’ said the Roman author Vegetius, ‘but training makes them so.’

Despite the many challenges he faced in life, Marcus’ biggest problem was probably one that he shared with modern soldiers and college students – boredom. As teachers well know, boredom is the greatest enemy of discipline and concentration so it’s worth spending a little time to reflect on its nature and causes. I tend to be bored when the tasks I am engaged are repetitive and when I sense that I am not being improved by them. Why should this be painful? Because marking time is the equivalent of going backwards: in the human brain the chemistry of progress is different from the chemistry of retreat. However, this isn’t just a simple case of providing challenges to keep the brain alive. As I’ve stated earlier we all have a story that links the disparate elements of our lives together: whatever we do needs to relate – in one way or another - to the achievement of the goals we have set for ourselves. And here’s the important point: ‘in one way or another’ means that the brain is remarkably adept at detecting challenges which may be useful in the future even if they are not now; it means that most of us will put up with a fair degree of boredom if it’s the price we have to pay to achieve ultimate success. In other words there is ‘long game’ to whose rules I will adhere even though I find myself challenged to engage in other ‘short games’ along the way. In concrete terms I may choose to walk away from a fight because I don’t want to sacrifice my chances of eventual survival for the temporary glory of having defeated a bully (I have to be careful however: defeat in the short term may lessen my chances of victory in the long run because my reputation is that of a coward. How many tales of adventure have their origin in such situations as a would-be hero deliberately courts danger to prove that he is unafraid!)

Thus boredom arises from two sources: firstly learners find the task too easy, secondly it seems irrelevant to them, either because it does not relate to their goals in life or because they do not have any goals beyond immediate survival. As is well known pupils who don’t see themselves as having any future are remarkably immune to any form of normal punishment. They are also the most prone to distraction – the brain’s way of compensating for lack of stimulus by providing a stimulus of its own. Even I – well trained in social discipline as I am – tend to doodle through boring meetings (a senior colleague – an artist in his own right - used to sell his creative jottings; the more boring the meeting, the better the doodle).

What therefore might Marcus have done to relieve his boredom? Soldiers in every age ‘mess around’, playing practical jokes on each other and those outside their immediate group, egging each other on to foolish acts of ‘derring-do’, and betting on the result of almost every kind of contest it is possible to imagine. Most of the time such activity is harmless because all concerned understand its limits. Alas, alcohol can blur the boundaries, increase aggression and release long pent-up resentments. When I invite my students to consolidate their learning by writing a short story about Marcus, based upon some fragments of Roman pottery that I hand round, the majority of them choose drink and its effects as the most likely answer to the question in the title: How did Marcus come to break his pot?

The other answer to the question is rivalry in love. Women students may see Marcus as a ‘love-rat’ who gets found out, in which case the pot is broken by being hurled at the faithless Marcus’ head by his girlfriend Livia (or is it Helena?). Male students generally prefer action – a surprise attack on Hadrian’s Wall which catches Marcus unawares - often as he is eating - but a significant proportion of them also choose a romantic theme. In their case it is Marcus who is betrayed. Broken-hearted he leans on his pot and over it goes, shattering into small pieces to be found by archaeologists nearly two thousand years later.

Of course we have no way of knowing whether that is what actually happened but as long as it lies within the bounds of the possible we can call it history. Through it can be demonstrated an awareness of all those details that distinguish ‘Roman-world’ from our world and which show that the learner has made an authentic journey into the past. Of course stories do not provide the only vehicle for creative engagements with the past: drama is a well known and well tried method. For younger children the strip cartoon may be a more appropriate format: its combination of words and pictures, already divided into ‘scenes’ provides an ideal half way house to a fully developed storyboard. My own particular favourite is the miniature ‘box theatre’ which requires learners to turn a story into a play, create a setting for it in a box lid, and then present it to an audience using cut out characters on the end of sticks. The production can be recorded on video, allowing many more people to see it (always a motivating factor). Use of the ‘blue background’ technique would enable live actors to be substituted for cardboard ones, although one of the key aspects of the old-fashioned box theatre is that it allows shy learners to show off their voice skills without being seen.