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MAUS and empathy

jkang's picture

This past summer, I acted as a Teacher's Assistant in a class for high school sophomores on European History and the Holocaust.  The teacher and I envisioned the course to include aspects of history, literature, media, and discussion to really engage the students to critically think about the Holocaust.  In the class, we used MAUS as a tool to get students to directly engage with a personalized history of the Holocaust, told through the life of Art and his father Vladek (and Anja).   During the class, we very much emphasized that the students should feel empathy, which we defined as "putting yourself in another person's shoes," for the the victims and survivors.  After reading Boler's chapter, "The Risks of Empathy," it really brings into question the problematic way that the teacher and I framed MAUS and empathy.

Boler's article struck me because I had used MAUS as a teaching tool, precisely in the way that she suggests is problematic.  The teacher and I very much emphasized feeling empathy (in the problematic way we defined it) for the victims and survivors.  We presented MAUS in a framework of passive empathy, in which my students expressed feelings of pity or "feeling" bad" for the survivors and victims and feelings of "understanding" what the survivors and victims went through.  But as Boler and the philosophy professor she references express, this superficial way of understanding and identifying does not allow for a deeper analysis of the power structures and relations that underlie the Holocaust and talking about the Holocaust.  It also put what our students felt, the pity and the sadness, first and put the realities of what the victims actually went through second.