How We Talk about Heroes with Feet of Clay

Earlier this week, near the end of class in my modern U.S. survey, an undergraduate student posed a provocative and timely question: Why do we only want to talk about the good things people from history did, and not the bad things? I think the wording was pretty close to that, though I don’t recall exactly.

In the context of the lesson, the student’s question was about public monuments, and specifically the colossal presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (My student particularly mentioned George Washington’s slaveholding as an example of an inconvenient truth about a historical figure.) But the question also seemed to voice a complaint about the student’s experiences in K-12 education.

We were about to run out of class period, so we tabled this question for the next lesson.

I wanted to make sure we discussed this question properly because a lot of the students in this class are education majors. Whether or not they specialize in social studies, they’ll soon be dropped into a public maelstrom centered on this problem. And many of them will have to decide how they are going to teach children responsibly about flawed figures from America’s past.

Discussion backdrop with detail from a photograph by Sergio Olmos, via OPB

To set up the conversation at the beginning of the next class period, I looked up a story from two years ago.

In October 2020—on the weekend before the federal holiday that Oregon would later designate as Indigenous Peoples Day—some two hundred people in Portland participated in an “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage.” By the end of that night, some of the protesters had pulled down statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, defaced a mural of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and smashed windows at the Oregon Historical Society, accusing that organization of “honoring racist colonizer murderers.”

I focused on this story because—much more than the recent destruction of some other kinds of monuments—it presents us with legitimately challenging questions about public memory. (We’re toppling Lincoln now? Really?)

It also involves a specific atrocity I discussed in the last class period. Painted across the plinth of the Lincoln statue in Portland that night in 2020 were the words “Dakota 38”: a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s approval of the public mass execution of 38 prisoners after the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. The statue’s hand was also painted red, presumably to signify Lincoln’s guilt as the Dakotas’ murderer. He had authorized, notoriously, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Basically, I didn’t want to make this conversation too easy. If we wanted to talk about hard truths, we should talk about hard truths, not easy ones. Thus, to begin our discussion in the following class period, I displayed a photograph taken that night in 2020 by the Portland journalist Sergio Olmos, and I briefly explained the story of the protest.

Then I posed two questions for the whole class. First, if you agree with the premise of your colleague’s question—that we usually want to talk about only the good, and not the badwhy do you think we’re like that? Second, how can we do better when we talk about our past?

The ensuing conversation lasted half an hour—a substantial portion of our total class time.

Out of an abundance of caution about protecting my students’ privacy, especially considering the political sensitivity of the discussion, I won’t go into the details of what they contributed. But I can tell you for sure that this issue has been on the minds of some of these students.

They are keenly aware that it’s a hot political topic. They understand that politics directly shapes what K-12 teachers can safely say about American history at work. And they already have strong opinions about this, opinions they have formulated with considerable care—in most cases, I’m quite sure, before arriving in my classroom.

Even though I’m being discreet about the contents of this class discussion, I’m writing about this because I think it’s important for American citizens who aren’t attending our colleges and universities to understand that these conversations are happening. It’s also important to understand that students are often coming to their own conclusions before they arrive in the college classroom.

And sometimes, correctly or not, they believe they’re reaching these conclusions in spite of the way they’ve been taught in primary and secondary schools, as much as because of it.

“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.

First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

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