On Tuesday Sep 12th, someone vandalized the statue of Columbus in central park. They painted his hands red, a symbol that he has blood on his hands. They wrote “hate will not be tolerated” on the side. It was the latest in a string of conflict involving traditionally celebrated historical figures. Whether or not the method itself is agreeable or even legal is one problem. But the message itself presents a different dilemma entirely. Maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating this man. Maybe we should look at other historical figures and THEIR flaws. In a way it opens Pandora’s Box:
- George Washington owned slaves, as did many of our founding fathers.
- Andrew Jackson loved killing Native Americans
- Winston Churchill was complicit in the Bengal famine, where an estimated 2.1 million people died of starvation
- Eisenhower gave refuge to Nazi scientists to start the space program
- Linden Johnson was an adulterous son-of-a-bitch who regularly wielded his dick around for show
- Martin Luther King plagiarized his PhD paper
Certainly, I wouldn’t put all of these shortcomings on an equal footing. It’s one thing to plagiarize a paper or wave your dong around for show. It’s another thing entirely to lead a genocide. My point is that many of the people who we look up to have serious flaws, albeit to differing degrees.
These, and other, public figures have statues, streets, universities and holidays named after them. We were taught that they are the epitome of righteousness and have built this great nation to be what it is today. Do we continue to recognize these figures for their actions, or do we focus on their most negative attributes and marginalize their legacy? I would argue that we shouldn’t choose one over the other. Learning about human failings presents a consequential learning opportunity.
Human beings are flawed. Many public figures who built this country were no exception. It doesn’t make their faults ok. In some cases these shortcomings may very well warrant revisiting curricula; maybe instead of celebrating them as heroes, their accomplishments and imperfections alike should be objectively covered in classrooms. It’s important to not just teach facts, but also critical thinking. Therefore, introspection such as this is healthy and necessary. What isn’t healthy is ignoring the complexity of human nature.
We often place intense focus on one aspect of a person. In doing so we are perpetuating the myth of moral absolutism. This particular “ism” states that there are people who are good, and there are people who are bad. There’s nothing in between. “I would NEVER do ANYTHING like THAT”, the thinking goes. This narrative is false.
Modern research in psychology has uncovered that human morality is a sliding scale that depends on many factors. Factors that include your environment, your belief system, your interpretation of the threats that you face as well as many others. Such influences can drive good people to do bad things, and bad people to do good things. It would be useful to include such research in curricula and apply its lessons to examine history.
Instead of insisting on the righteousness of moral absolutism, we should encourage students to ask important questions and think about the answers:
- Why did the person act this way?
- Were they a product of their times?
- Where they a product of their believe system?
- Was group think involved?
- Would they have acted differently under different circumstances?
- How would the student themselves handle the situation such historical figures were faced with?
(The answer is pretty easy with Linden Johnson’s Johnson – just don’t fucking do it…what an asshole).
By applying such questions to historical figures and events, students will learn how THEY themselves can be influenced to take morally reprehensible actions. In this way, we can ensure that we aren’t just encouraging kids to memorize facts. We are truly encouraging them to learn from history.