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Understanding Historical Worldviews

Provide a historically sensitive account of a worldview expressed in selected historical documents.

Outcomes References Related Resources

Suggested Activities

Students develop an understanding of the worldviews that framed the imperialistic attitudes and actions of people in earlier times by explaining how selected historical accounts are representative of the assumptions, beliefs and values of the historical time and place.

To explore the European views of Aboriginal peoples in the 16th to early 17th century, students may examine the arguments defending slavery offered by Spanish historian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and other views expressed by his contemporaries in historical texts and illustrations.

To explore the British imperialistic worldview of the late 19th century, students may examine three poems: Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden," Henry Labouchère's "The Brown Man's Burden" and Ernst Crosby's "The Real' White Man's Burden'."

Students will be better prepared to handle the material in this challenge if they have completed activities described in Sensitive Reading of Historical Documents (Critical Challenge).

Introduction to concepts: Historical empathy and worldview
Before providing historical documents to students, introduce the notions of worldview and historical empathy. The objective is to help students understand that people may have a different worldview–a constellation of assumptions, beliefs and values that frame the way they understand the world–which may inform, if not dictate, their actions and relationships with others.

Students may have a tendency to judge the actions of historical individuals and people through the lens of contemporary societal values and mores. To combat this tendency it is important to nurture historical empathy (see References). Historical empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another's place. It is a valuable trait because it:

  • encourages the learner to try to understand the another's motives, ideas and actions in light of the historical context
  • does not necessarily seek to justify the actions of individuals or people, rather to understand why people acted as they did
  • encourages students to investigate the past by examining events in the context of the time
  • requires an intuitive sense of how things may have been different and an appreciation of the complexity of this task
  • requires students to resist the practice of presentism, which is the temptation to dismiss the past through the eyes of their own moral and ethical frameworks.

Remind students that although the documents they read may reflect a dominant view held at the time, not all Europeans supported imperialism or the policies of the imperial governments.

Use questions to analyze worldviews
Encourage students to consider these four questions:

  • What are the writer's assumptions, beliefs and values?
  • How do aspects of this worldview differ from what is generally accepted today?
  • What aspects of this worldview are similar to what is generally accepted today?
  • Why might intelligent people at the time have held these beliefs?

To avoid creating an impression that there are no shared assumptions and beliefs, it is useful to invite students to look for common elements; e.g., shared concern for national interests, common tendencies to dismiss what is different.

You may want to adapt the charts and strategies in Collecting Information (Support Material) to structure and assess students' responses to these questions.

Identify and analyze late 19th century British worldviews in poetry
Invite students to read Rudyard Kipling's poem "White Man's Burden" and discuss and record their reactions to the poem.

If necessary, use a word sort to assist students with understanding unfamiliar language.
To do a word sort, select words that are likely to be problematic and those that are vital to understanding Kipling's poem. Write these words on small cards and place them in an envelope. Distribute an envelope to each group. Ask students to remove the cards from the envelope and place them on the table. Clearly explain the words likely to be difficult. Invite students to suggest any other words on the cards they are unsure of. Provide brief explanations of the words. Once students are familiar with all the words on the cards, ask them to cluster related words. The groups are to determine the clusters and therefore the relationships among the words. Ask students to speculate on the key ideas likely to be found in the poem based on their word sort.

To construct a worldview of late 19th century, students need to learn about Kipling's life and times. This worldview should capture a variety of influences that may have shaped Kipling's attitudes, including where he lived and travelled, his economic and social status, and common attitudes and prominent ideas of the day. Note that Kipling was a Nobel Prize winner. Direct students to conduct research on British imperialistic attitudes of the late 19th century or provide students with information in written, pictorial or verbal form.

Invite students to read Henry Labouchère's poem "The Brown Man's Burden" and to record evidence showing his reaction to Kipling's poem. You may wish to include Ernest Crosby's "The Real'White Man's Burden'," or other responses or perspectives for comparison. You also may need to explain the vocabulary of the two poems or replace or supplement the poems with drawings of the time or other sources that reflect the varying perspectives.

Identify and analyze European 16th century worldviews in Sepúlveda's accounts
Remind students that they are reading the accounts to understand European perceptions of Aboriginal peoples and not to look for accurate portrayals of the Indigenous peoples. Provide students with an excerpt from de Sepúlveda's historical work (see Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (Background Information)). Instruct students to identify the assumptions, beliefs and values attributed to Aboriginal peoples.

You may wish to do a shared reading activity, in which the teacher reads a section of the passage along with the students. Next, direct students to think about it themselves and then share their ideas in pairs to prepare to discuss the ideas with the whole class.

After students have identified Sepúlveda's perceptions, provide them with these quotations and images from the mid 16th to early 17th century: European Perceptions 1550–1620: Quotations (Background Information).

Students may need additional background information to establish a context for the quotations and images. Invite students to examine the visual and/or text material to find evidence of Sepúlveda's attribution of his own beliefs, assumptions and values to Aboriginal peoples.

Students will be aided in interpreting the explicit and implicit messages in the illustrations if you teach some of the tools described in Interpreting and Re-interpreting Visual Images (Modelling the Tools).

Write a historically empathetic account of a worldview
After discussions and sharing of ideas, ask students to prepare a historically empathetic account of one of the worldviews they explored. You might suggest that students structure their response around two themes:

  • how the historical worldview and contemporary assumptions, beliefs and values are similar in some respects and different in other respects
  • why this historical worldview might have made sense to people at the time (not to justify, but to explain of the roots of these views).

Ideas adapted from Legacy: The West and the World by Garfield Newman. Whitby, ON: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2002.

Last updated: May 30, 2008 | (Revision History)
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