Pull Down the Statues, and Pull Down the Social Studies Curriculum, Too

Pull Down the Statues, and Pull Down the Social Studies Curriculum, Too

Jack Zevin

“In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.” – Dana Goldstein (2020, January 12). “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories,” New York Times.

“PULL DOWN THE STATUES” is becoming something of a national pastime these days. Americans are suddenly discovering that many, maybe most of our historical honors expressed as statues and streets have been awarded to racist, sexist, militaristic, and anti-progressive figures in our shared history. These folks, largely of monochromatic hue, were previously were seen as ‘important people’; heroines and heroes for a hundred or more years. (Well, very few heroines, alas but lots of great guys.)

It is rather amusing, and frightening, to think that the realization of moral error, street renaming, and statue destruction, is taking place in a highly contentious atmosphere of competing parties, philosophies, politics, marches, and culture wars during a worldwide major pandemic of epic proportions!

While destroying statues or defacing them or tossing them into the river {warning: possible pollution!) people are lining up to demand dramatic changes in who and what statues represent now and historically.

There is only a little talk on using suddenly ‘defrocked’ statues as educational tools, and taking aim at more than breaking a few former heroes’ necks. The statues represent ‘other times’ in our history, when slavers, fornicators, capitalists, and imperialists were given positive treatment and raised up on pedestals because we the people of that time saw these folks in a very positive light, asked few questions, and easily received government funding to build the things. Worse yet, we enshrined many in our collective historical memories, suppressing all negative input about their lives and morals, forgetting all were no more than mere mortals.

There are (and were) many juicy examples, like Robert E. Lee, the rebel commander sitting at the entrance to the Virginia State Assembly, Teddy Roosevelt on the steps of the Museum of Natural History in New York accompanied by a Native American and African American subject at either side. Christopher Columbus astride a horse was toppled recently outside the Minnesota state capitol in protest of racism against Native peoples.

A lot of the statues have delicious ironies since Lee, a slave-owning hero of the South and a “great” general actually lost the war with the North; while Teddy Roosevelt, an exciting President and world traveler (as well as proud imperialist) thought he was advancing the “lesser” peoples to greater recognition, while these people remained politically and socially inferior. Columbus statues were put up to recognize contributions by Italian Americans after decades of immigration to the USA at the expense (though they may not have recognized it) of Native Peoples. Who is in power gets to build the statues they like, until the politics shift at later times. Context should not be underrated!

Maybe we need lighter wheeled and movable statues to push in and out of warehouses, as needed, to satisfy the shifting political issues of the time?

Yet these bronze pigeon-bearing structures were often ignored, or got just a glance of admiration or condemnation, from ordinary folk brought up on a social studies curriculum of state sponsored and purchased textbooks that have supported and personalized the exact same people now toppled from their pedestals, figuratively and literally. After all, every nation needs its heroines/heroes to be proud of in shared worship. But if we dump them that means we need to rethink new candidates and push up a lot of new expensive statues.

As a workaday social studies teacher starting out in Chicago Public Schools I remember being handed my textbook by my social studies chairman, a book, History of the American People, by David Muzzey, An American History textbook for schools, first published in 1911 and a best seller into the 1950s. I rapidly discovered that I was teaching from a volume very sympathetic to the South in the Civil War, offering anti-immigrant and occasional blatant racism, so much so I was embarrassed to present it to my mixed multitude class of students, and deeply suspicious of its motives. Women were rare, mostly the wives of Presidents, with African-American’s problems ignored, Native Americans rarer still with a few feather bonnets noted, and Ethnics nearly non-existent. Most of these people were NEVER heard from in their own voices, only through the historian.

From a Chicagoan’s point of view, those gathered before me and those offered in the text most definitely struck a discordant note. It was time to cheat and create a new underground curriculum of inquiry! I had some real work to do not only to teach, but to defeat the textbook itself…so I became a lover of original sources, presented just as they were, warts and all, and that was a lot of serious work suited to inquiry and frank debate.

It is easy to tear down statues and give rise to new people on pedestals but the big question is what images, which values, whose stories, determine who shall be heroines/heroes in our minds and hearts and history.

After a couple of centuries of building allegiances and admiration for very flawed leaders, this form of socialization is much harder to change as part of cultural heritage, our inner realm of tokens, symbols, and identifications.

Much of this biased story was what we learned in school from state and city textbooks accompanied by enthusiastic teacher exponents of great leaders and country/men (a lot) and country/women (a few) plus a few troublemakers. But the big questions include: why do we need pedestals at all, why either raise up, or pull down, statues? Why not reform the content and meaning of what we learn in school and home histories?

Amidst cries for social justice, Black Lives Matter, the end of racism, fairness in economic sharing of the nation’s wealth, all while dealing with a devastating pandemic, the curriculum continues to wander along in its patriotic fervor, with rather gentle treatments of great leaders many of whom were slaveowners, warmongers, and suppressors of civil rights. Andrew Jackson comes along as a fine example open to questions of patriotism, racism and betrayal of the Constitution.

The entire curriculum, from important characters, and stories, to periodization, from before the beginning of the Republic, to current times, from foundation to towering international power, from inhabitants excluded or included like dancers and singers and playwrights and novelists, we desperately need a makeover.

That makeover, should be honest and forthright, neither conservative, nor liberal, not middle of the road, just honest and forthright about disagreements (extremely difficult because we desperately want those statues and personalities to stand in the curriculum without any tarnishing.) We like our heroines/heroes varnished and standing, maybe on rearing stallions, super-duper characters standing for our best founders’ policies, like ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Perhaps this is why Americans are so prone to celebrate superheroes and a few superheroines?

If we cannot decide on a single acceptable narrative for everyone right now, how about side-by-side competing narratives on each side of a page facing each other? Let us see the clashing views right out in the open. Or let’s use our modern technology to meet-and-greet clashing views of “great” and “ordinary” people.

A great inquiry lesson comes to mind: does Jefferson stand up as a great man after careful scrutiny, or does his statue and status go down? Does Andrew Johnson deserve a statue at all? Who really does deserve a statue? How about reserving statues for ordinary heroines and heroes outside of war and politics? How about cultural people in the arts and humanities, music and architecture, medicine and science, etc.? How about the firemen and police who risked their lives on 9/11? How about less emphasis on GREAT MEN and more on stuff that really matters like food, inventions, economics, gender, and moral philosophy, taking issues and problems seriously without necessarily solving anything?

How about a new diet of people and events that includes the views and stories of Native Americans, African-Americans, Ethnics and immigrants, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and all the peoples and characters pretty much underprivileged in U.S. history textbooks and classrooms? How about a new diet across genders, LGBTQ rainbows, and especially fairer treatment for women, more women, even troublesome examples. Where are the women other than Presidents’ wives and suffragettes?

Where are the writers, journalists, artists, musicians, entertainers, dancers, and scientists? Where are the women?

Where are ethnics and newcomers? Where are some great villain? Does our history have to be “whitewashed?”

Why don’t we write a fairer and more open, more troublesome, more challenging, and more entertaining curriculum? Multisided? Real inquiry aiming at reaching at least tentative truths, and decision-making, albeit tentative?

So, let’s tear down the curriculum right now. Let’s do it overall, not piece by piece, fight by fight, but overall, the whole thing from new perspectives. Let’s revise the periodization, the cast of characters, the favorite stories, the underlying philosophies of national and international history, (sorry, but the U.S.A. is part of world history, too, very much so, but a long story only solved by a new curriculum). For example, in U.S. history, maybe we can give the Moundbuilders a bit of time at the beginning, maybe note that the colonies had European aid in the Revolution, that the second revolution failed in Reconstruction so we had to try again in the 60s with the Civil Rights movement as a third revolution, and we may have to try again.

Let’s opt for structural changes, historical philosophies, and embed the story in a global narrative so everything is not always about, ‘us’ but ‘them’, others, all.

Let us battle with our statues, our heroes, and a few heroines, facing up to the 7 sins of history (you come up with your own list):

  • Ethnocentrism: The sin of thinking that everything should be seen from ‘our’ point of view and not others.
  • Egoism: The sin of thinking that the story is always about us, never them.
  • Nationalism: The sin of thinking our nation is the greatest, right or wrong.
  • Sexism: The sin of thinking that gender is neutral in history and daily life.
  • Racism: The sin of thinking that there are ‘races’, and that one is superior or inferior when we can all interbreed as one species.
  • Imperialism: The sin of thinking and celebrating sometimes violent real estate grabs without a contract or compensation as something wonderful.
  • Official Story: The sin of promulgating and authorizing a single story of any period of history, any people or nation, any great leader as if this existed without any contrary views from ‘the other’.

I rest my case (for now).

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