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Teachers' Understanding of Empathy in History Teaching: The emotional risks of identification and the disruptive potential of 'Empathetic Unsettlement' in Comparative Victimhood

We live in the so-called ‘age of empathy’ (DeWaal, 2009) in which empathy has become one of the most celebrated emotions. Empathizing with the experience (and most notably the suffering) of others has been associated with kindness, respect for others, and responsible citizenship (Özyürek, 2018). Empathy also plays a significant role in historiographical discussions and debates, especially in the post-Holocaust era, in which empathy has been viewed as ethical currency for addressing mistreatment, abuse and indifference to the suffering of others (Goldberg, 2016; Oliver, 2016).

Not surprisingly, then, empathy has become central to history and history teaching, particularly as an enabling condition for historical understanding (Davis, Yeager & Foster, 2001; Low-Beer, 1989; Shemilt, 1984; Harris & Foreman-Peck, 2004). However, it has been argued that fostering empathy in history teaching can be problematic because of the complexity and the emotional challenges involved. Furthermore, while scholarship on the role of empathy in history teaching has focused upon its philosophical meaning and students’ thought processes, teachers’ understandings of empathy and the exploration of the risks emerging from such understandings as well as teaching practices fostering empathy have been largely neglected (Cunningham, 2009). Hence, it is important to examine how teachers conceptualize empathy in history teaching and attempt to foster feelings of empathy in different contexts.

The present paper aims to examine teachers’ conceptualizations of empathy in teaching about the Holocaust within the context of Cyprus—a country which has been less affected by the Holocaust, but most importantly a country that still suffers from the traumatic consequences of ethnic conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots that keeps Cyprus divided for more than half a century. This exploration is conducted through a qualitative study of secondary (history) school teachers in Greek-Cypriot schools, focusing on how teachers situate their conceptualizations of empathy in teaching about the Holocaust within the historical and political context of Cyprus. This exploration offers new ways of thinking about empathy in history teaching that take into account both contextual factors and the goals and risks emerging from how teachers attempt to foster empathy in this setting—especially when it comes to the issue of comparative vitctimization.