Statues are coming down, and rightfully so. In addition to removing those monuments that honor Confederate generals and politicians, we’ve begun an era where we are seeking to remove those that honor Alexander Hamilton’s father in law, Christopher Columbus, and even Abraham Lincoln. We’ve also reached the point where Republican politicians are preparing to rename U.S. military bases.
It has only taken more than a century and a half to question the honorifics we have provided to men who were guilty of atrocities against various populations of peoples. Many of these protests focus on those men who committed treason against the United States during the Civil War. In doing so, we’ve ignored the fact that the Confederate States of America existed for only five years, two years less than the Dukes of Hazzard was broadcast on CBS.
The removal of statues and monuments that recognized some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history is important. It says that we no longer honor the actions and the beliefs of those who stood on the wrong side of history. But as we melt down the bronze and chip away at the marble bases, we must be sure that the removal of monuments does not — and should not — mean the erasure of that same history. And it certainly doesn’t abdicate us from teaching and learning U.S. history.
From the voyages of Christopher Columbus to 1619 to the American Revolution to the Civil War to the Vietnam era to today, one thing is certain: America’s history is complex. Our history is ugly and complicated and contradictory. And understanding it is necessary to successfully participate in our great experiment in representative democracy.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to listen to a group of local African-American students speak of the educational shortcomings of their high-achieving, well-respected public school district. Multiple voices discussed how we are failing generations of students by offering the most cursory of American history survey courses, offered in an environment when they typically spend half a year learning of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, a quarter of the year studying the Civil War, and, post-state testing, a month or so to get through the remaining century-plus of history.
These voices called out curriculum experts who they believed limited the study of anyone who wasn’t a white male landowners to February — Black History Month — and to only use those 20 or so days of instruction to study the same stories of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. every year, ignoring the vast contributions that Black America has made to our nation, our history, our society, our community, and our nation. Ignoring the importance of weaving those stories into the context of the times they lived and happened, and not as stand-alone examples to check a box.
In essence, these young leaders were calling for a learning environment that moves beyond the basic names of generals and battles and the dates where they happened. They wanted an approach to American history that allowed them to ask why. An approach that explores understanding what happened, questions why society allowed it to happen, and probes what we can learn from it so it doesn’t happen again. They were urging educators to let them think like historians.
Yes, we can remove statues of Thomas Jefferson. But we should not be removing meaningful conversations about how the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was also a life-long slaveowner.
We should learn about how the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, didn’t begin to seriously discuss the issues of abolition and slavery until he decided to run for President of the United States.
We should discuss how Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man responsible for the New Deal and its efforts to raise all Americans up, could inter Japanese Americans during World War II.
We should debate how Harry Truman could be both the Commander in Chief responsible for desegregating the U.S. military and the first to unleash the atrocities of the atomic bomb.
We should unpack how Lyndon Johnson was so committed to making both the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society the laws of the land, while also sending more and more young men of color to their deaths in the jungles of Vietnam.
And yes, we should explore not only what led the Confederate states to break away in the mid-1800s, but to also understand why such an ugly five-year period in our history still has so much control and connection to so many people a century and a half later.
To put it simply, history matters. We might want to believe that those written about in the history books are infallible, but it simply is not the case. We might want to believe that removing the statue from the town square removes that page from the history books, but it just does not. We might want to believe we can discount the actions of the past by judging them through a modern-day lens, but we really should not.
Removing monuments and changing names of buildings is an important step in not glorifying these individuals. But ignoring our past will not guarantee us a more equitable, inclusive future. If anything, we need to double down on the teaching and learning of history, providing a deeper understanding of what happened and why. We need more students who demand to know why they aren’t being taught certain eras and issues and leaders in history, as they wonder what else their teachers aren’t telling them about. We need more young people who question and reject and explore and reveal and push back about what they are taught, why they are taught it, and what they can learn from it.
We must embrace complex, contradictory, confusing, and at times ugly history, learning from it so we can build on our greatest moments and not replicate our worst. That means asking the uncomfortable questions and demanding even more difficult discussions in pursuit of the answers. It means generations of learners who are truly thinking like historians.