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.

“It’s Made Me a Very Proud German”

In this short video, Katharina Matro, a high school teacher who works in Maryland but grew up in Germany, reflects on the benefits of confronting hard truths about the national past. The video was recorded for the American Historical Association’s “Teaching History with Integrity” project.

Matro refers in this video to a great line in the 2020 memorial address by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany: “This country can only be loved with a broken heart.”

“Essentially an Evil Thing”

In the last few days, several European conversations converged for me in a troubling way.

Historic anniversaries played a role. This Saturday was the anniversary of V-E Day for most western nations. And the next day, which was Victory Day in Russia, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that western media found threatening. In some pockets of social media, I found scattered debates about how to remember the Soviet Union’s outsized role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, had been the bicentenary of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death. Marking that day, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the dictator’s grave, delivering a speech that lightly acknowledged some of Napoléon’s crimes yet also celebrated his “political will” and “taste for the possible”—as if murdering people on a continental scale were a self-actualization exercise.

In the Guardian yesterday, the columnist Kenan Malik—with one eye on recent British debates about how to remember the imperialist-but-antifascist Winston Churchill—brought together various conversations when he implicitly praised Macron’s speech as a refusal “to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present.”

Reading the text of Macron’s speech myself, though, I find that simplifying the past to feed the needs of the present is precisely what the French president was doing.

Continue reading ““Essentially an Evil Thing””

75 Years of “Inner Liberation”

steinmeier-endofwwii

Today marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day, when German armed forces surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. Public celebrations in various countries have been dampened by the pandemic.

You should definitely take fifteen minutes of your day to listen to this extraordinary address (dubbed in English) by Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

We had made enemies of the entire world. Today, seventy-five years later, we are forced to commemorate alone. But the difference is, we are no longer alone. And that is the happy truth of the present day. …

It has taken us three generations to admit it whole-heartedly. 8 May 1945 was indeed a day of liberation. But at the same time, the vast majority of Germans did not perceive it as such. … This country had descended too far into the evil and the guilt. …

It is a struggle, though, that continues to this day. A remembrance can never end. There can be no deliverance from our past. For without remembrance, we lose our future. …

This country can only be loved with a broken heart.

Watch the whole speech here.

(Update: The advance text of the speech is available in various languages directly from the Bundespräsident’s office.)

Teach September 11

9-11-PaulMorse-NARA

A traditional undergraduate entering college this fall was probably an infant on September 11, 2001. Across my courses, most of my younger students no longer remember the day itself. They remember fragmented impressions of its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of older family members and teachers. Or they remember only the impression that something really bad had happened. They summon up images of adults in tears, holding mysterious school assemblies or sending them home early, trying vainly to comfort themselves by offering comfort to uncomprehending kids.

September 11, which I do remember vividly, now occupies the same role for many of my students that the late days of the Cold War had for me. It was a moment of tectonic power, causing frequent aftershocks ever since, that defines their lives without their really being there for it. But there is a difference.

Continue reading “Teach September 11”