“… of course, you need to get students to see the events of the past the way that people at the time saw them,” the assistant principal explained to me.
I was getting some advice about how to set goals for my classes in U.S. history from a high school administrator who had never actually taught at the high school level. I nodded and tried to shift the conversation in another direction. I was fighting the urge to add a little nuance to his comment, but I knew that this man did not handle nuance well.
I understood what he was trying to say. It is not enough to get kids to remember a set of events; they can’t really understand why things unfolded the way they did without an appreciation for the context in which they occurred.
But I also knew that part of the process of understanding the past is developing an awareness of one’s own context in the present day. We can’t help but be who we are. We have our own set of values and priorities. We operate from a “conventional wisdom” that is informed by the successes and the failures of the past. We assess, we evaluate, we judge those around us – and sometimes we learn something new and change our opinions. It is a good exercise for students of history to try to understand the perspectives of those who lived in different times. But the idea that we suspend all judgement and immerse ourselves in the past, setting aside our values and opinions in favor of those of people from another era … well, that just seems wrong to me. It seems like yet another way to reinforce the idea that history is irrelevant to people today. As a history teacher, that is the last thing I want my students to believe.
History lives. You can see its power and influence all around us, if you know how to recognize the signs. And sometimes, you can see the appropriation of historical images and ideas, dusted off and repurposed with new messages and new meanings.
Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a ruling in a case brought by an African American worker against a fellow employee alleging that the co-worker’s insistence on wearing a cap with the image of the Gadsden flag constituted racial harassment. The complaint had stated that the cap was offensive because the image had been created by a slave owner and trader in human beings. The EEOC found that the historical usage of the Gadsden flag during the Revolutionary era was not racist, but that the appropriation of the flag in recent years by the Tea Party movement and by certain white supremacists raised the question of whether it had acquired a racist connotation today. The EEOC ruled that it would not dismiss the complainant’s case until evidence on the modern meaning of the flag could be presented.
But I wonder about the argument that the judges in the case seemed to dismiss so lightly. So the flag was not used in the past to promote a racist message. What about the fact that it was produced by a man, Christopher Gadsden, who was clearly a racist – a man whose livelihood depended on activities that would not only be illegal, but would be condemned today as immoral and unforgivable?
We are accustomed to giving our “founding fathers” a pass when it comes to slavery. We tend to try to see things the way they must have seen them. We judge that this massive conspiracy to violate the human rights of millions was merely a moral oversight. We declare that our “fathers” were heroes in the context of their times. Let’s just ignore the fact that they would be criminals today. Let’s declare them to be heroes of modern times as well.
We seem to have decided – at least in history class – that we need Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and many, many others to be heroes. But why? Surely, as with all people, there are some things about these figures that are worthy of admiration, even emulation. But there are other things that merit condemnation. In some cases, their reprehensible acts are so unforgiveable as to taint even their most positive contributions.
Is slavery one of those reprehensible acts? Should we revoke hero status from all those who worked to sustain the practice for so many generations?
This is a serious question, with an answer that depends both on an appreciation of the perspectives of those who lived in the past and on the values and judgement of those who study history today.
Why not give students the tools to answer the question for themselves?
An article on the case involving the Gadsden flag image on a hat https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/08/03/wearing-dont-tread-on-me-insignia-could-be-punishable-racial-harassment/?utm_term=.f446fa548458