From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom

Apr. 21, 2015

Source: Teaching Theology & Religion Volume 18, Issue 2 Pages 101–189


A commitment to empathetic understanding shaped the field of religious studies; although subject to critique, it remains an important teaching practice where students are charged with the task of recognizing, and perhaps even appreciating, a worldview that appears significantly different from their own. However, when the focus of the course is historical trauma there are significant epistemological and ethical reasons empathetic understanding may not be our best pedagogical strategy. Drawing primarily on my experience teaching a general education class “The Holocaust and Its Impact” at California State University, Bakersfield, I advocate replacing empathetic understanding with engaged witnessing as a pedagogical framework and strategy for teaching traumatic knowledge. To make this case, I delineate four qualities of engaged witnessing and demonstrate their use in teaching about the Holocaust.


Forms of empathetic understanding that depend on identification create epistemological and ethical problems when teaching about trauma. The question, then, is how can students learn about historical trauma in meaningful, non-objectifying ways that do not put the students at increased risk of trauma, while still approaching an understanding that is not superficial in the face of the immense loss engendered by the historical trauma. Dominick LaCapra's (1999) evocative phrase “empathic unsettlement” provides a useful starting point for rethinking empathetic understanding. LaCapra offers an important intervention into the discourse of empathy with the term “unsettlement,” which describes a response that “manifests empathy (but not full identification) with the victim” (1999, 699). As we have seen, teaching based on fostering empathy through identification runs the risk of paralyzing the student-turned-witness, or, alternately, replacing ethics and politics with sentimentality. Furthermore, education can be falsely redemptive, especially in the study of historical trauma, and thus foreclose effective response. To become unsettled opens up other possibilities. While this article focuses on teaching the Holocaust, the question of an adequate pedagogical framework for teaching historical trauma applies to other courses in religious studies where oppression, marginalization, and social justice are concerns. The following section offers an alternative pedagogical framework that I have named “engaged witnessing.” Engaged witnessing in the midst of traumatic knowledge includes four distinct qualities, or pedagogical strategies, for engaging historical trauma: studying the historical context; exploring multiple subject positions; including the position of the student; testing the possibilities and limits of representation; and utilizing emotion as a source for knowledge.

Updated: Jun. 17, 2015