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Tear It Down: 4 Opportunities For Teaching With Monuments and Statues in a Time of Social Change.

People who follow my work or this blog know that on several occasions I have discussed the way we can use places as teaching tools, specifically parks, monuments, memorials, and of course statues. Although I’m not the only one, I was talking about the problems regarding outdated statues and underfunded historical monuments before it was cool to tear them down.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder we find ourselves as a society grappling with issues of social justice and race in a way that hasn’t been seen arguably since the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Overall, I am hopeful that the outcome of this renewed movement will be positive, and that it lead to a better, more equitable society. I continue to look for opportunities to amplify those who have been doing anti-racist and social justice work before adding my own voice. That being said, Within this river of a change there is a current that I feel uniquely obligated to speak to, and that is the movement to remove monuments or statues that are offensive to some members of the community they are placed in, even if it involves illegal actions.

Alongside the movement to remove Confederate iconography from cities, the most widespread example of this growing trend seems to be focused on Christopher Columbus, not for his role in introducing the western hemisphere to the Old World, but for his participation in the genocide and exploitation of native peoples. I’m not gonna get into a debate here regarding whether or not Columbus was a good guy, because honestly if you read his letters and journals there’s not much to debate.

But I do think there is debate a plenty to be had surrounding the removal of his statues. I definitely do not fault members of indigenous tribes who seek their removal from public places for the role he played in the wholesale slaughter of their people, or the African-American community in the role he had greatly expanding the slave trade. If a statue to Columbus sits in front of a government building then any self-respecting Native American would have to question if the people inside the building really have their best interests at heart. But there is a great amount of debate regarding the objects themselves. Should they be removed, relocated, or completely destroyed? Objects like statues and monuments are touchstones for our national narrative, both the good parts and the bad, and deciding on a course of action without careful thought is perhaps the worst thing you can do.

In Germany, a place that has grappled with its own historical specters, landmarks and monuments are actually referred to as "thought objects" which is the way that I and other advocates of place-based learning see them as well. They are used to teach and remind people of history while acknowledging past traumas in a way that doesn't glorify them. On a side note they are also nowhere near centered of government and there are no military bases named after prominent Nazis...

Removing and relocating monuments and then providing the proper historic context to understand them is crucial work that has been largely ignored by most government agencies in the US. However, the recent rash of destructive acts underlies a problem that I have pointed out on many occasions; the meaning of many of these monuments has been completely lost or has changed so radically that they are long overdue for a discussion and/or revision. This leads to acts of destruction which sometimes run counter to the symbolism of the act of destroying them and in some cases do more harm then good. (more on this later)

One example of how destruction can actually cause more issues than it solves happened recently in Madison, Wisconsin where a statue that sat on the capitol grounds was torn down. The statue was not of a Confederate general or a politician with a racist streak, but of Hans Christian Heg, a Civil War hero and abolitionist who fought in the Civil War not to restore the Union so much as to abolish the evil of slavery. Heg was an immigrant and a militant abolitionist who actually formed a militia unit that hunted down slave catchers. He was an officer in the 15th Wisconsin, a unit of largely Scandinavian immigrants who fought in several important battles. Heg would die in action before he saw slavery expunged from his country.

So why did the crowd decide his statue had to come down? Because they had no idea who he was and were too self-important to bother checking Wikipedia. Nobody had ever bothered to teach them who Heg was or what the symbolism of placing his state on the capital grounds communicated about the ideals of Wisconsin as a state. The purpose behind their protest was lost and has since been used to cast dispersions on similar protests across the country. But it wasn't just their fault. The state of Wisconsin helped prepare this crime as they have no easily-accessible guide to the public art on their capitol grounds. The fact that so few people were able to recognize this monument to a white man whose life and deeds clearly proved that Black Lives Mattered shows just how poor of a job we all do at making sure that monuments and statues remain relevant.

Educators, historians, government, and people all share equal responsibility in making sure that places that physically denote and commemorate our history matter to the public and represent its wishes and shared vision for our nation. For teachers, there are ample opportunities to rethink how landmarks and public art can be rethought, revised, or removed rather than destroyed, and in the process, teach the public about their importance. Here are four possible lines of inquiry that could lead to place-based lessons or projects;

  • 1) What happens if a monument commemorates more than one thing? In the case of statues of Columbus, is it meant to commemorate just the man? His deeds? And do all statues of Columbus have the exact same meaning?

In many cases Columbus statues were not built by the government, but were gifts given to state or local municipalities from Italian immigrant groups. In still more cases they are monuments not to Columbus, but the connection between the US and the Italian people given by the immigrants who came to this country to find better lives and help build the nation we have today. When one of these statues is destroyed, what double-meaning does such an act carry with it? And how do we prioritize the meanings of monuments and statues?

  • 2) How can we help students to really understand the full story of the monument before pronouncing sentence on what it represents? Are we helping students to learn about how complex these issues are?

The best example of this is the Emancipation Statue in Washington DC (with copies elsewhere) which has a long history of controversy and depending on when you read this, may have already been torn down. The statue depicts President Abraham Lincoln with a slave kneeling in front of him. And if you think that the question of what to do with statue is straight-forward, think again;

  • On the surface, the statue is racist. It's hard to argue that the imagery isn't dated and offensive. Narratives of history focusing on white paternalism or perpetuating a white savior complex ooze from this statue, which while well-intended, are not narratives that many African Americans would like to see lifted up, especially in high-profile works of public art. So yeah, it should be removed...

  • BUT WAIT! The backstory of this statue is essential to understandings its full meaning! The statue was paid for almost entirely by freedmen of color as a tribute to Lincoln's support of their freedom. Additionally, at the dedication, Frederick Douglass gave one of his last great speeches where he prophetically said that Reconstruction and the progress made for free men and women of color would be lost if they didn’t change course. They didn’t, and he turned out to be very right. Would tearing down the statue erase the physical memory of this important speech by Douglas as well as the monetary contribution of the Freedman who first paid for its installation? It is one of the first public works of art financed by the African-American community! Isn't that historic unto itself? Maybe we should leave it up...

  • BUT WAIT AGAIN! It was designed without Freedman input and Frederick Douglass may have said he didn't really like it! A recently discovered letter seems to indicate that Douglass himself said the statue. So maybe we could remove it...? Or move it...? Or redesign it...?

As you can see the complexities in these issues lend themselves to debate and discussions, not the snap decisions of mobs.

  • 3) Is removing or destroying a statue really the best way to deal with objections to what they inshrine? Are there ways that their design could be altered to update or flip the narrative proposed by the statue?

In the 1990's a statue of Conquistador and New Mexico colonist Juan de Onate had its foot cut off. This defacement was symbolic, as de Onate's legacy includes persecution of the native Pueblos people and lot of documented incidents of torture with one of his more infamous methods being to cut the feet off uncooperative indigenous people. This symbolic reprisal led to many people reconsidering the legacy of this historic figure in a way that removing the statue would not have allowed. The statue, in a sense, was used against itself, reminding everyone who saw it of Onate's FULL legacy which might have been outside their own cultural lens. Could Confederate monuments, for example, be turned against the very narrative that created the and they seem to perpetuate?

  • 4) If a statue is controversial to some and an essential representation of history to others, who gets to decide what happens to it? How is that decision best made? While the case to remove some monuments is pretty clear-cut, what about others where the waters are much murkier?

The statue of President Andrew Jackson in New Orleans comes to mind as a perfect example of monument whose meaning is tangled in a web of conflicting meanings. Jackson was a slave owner and unrepentant killer of Native Americans. But he was also the general who saved the city of New Orleans from destruction by the British during the War of 1812 and whose statue is a historic symbol of the city that can be found on license plates, official government stationary, and mountains of memorabilia. Has the statue to this controversial figure transcended its original meaning?

If you are not yet convinced of the value of lessons like these that help future citizens think out these complex issues for themselves, consider the alternative; they can learn about it from you OR they will follow the example of someone and right now, there aren't many good role models out there...

Ignore the courts, break the law, get back at your enemies, it's ok to hurt other people if you're right...these are not lessons our students need to lear right now and underline how important it is to recommit to educating everyone about monuments and statues.

If you'd like to learn more about how to do this, I will be posting a series of blogs providing examples that landmarks like monuments and statues can be used to teach and create dialogs. I also have a downloaded eBook that takes you through the process of creating educational experiences that use landmarks.

Regardless of how you feel about this statue and that monument, this debate provides fantastic opportunities for students to think critically and develop their ability to make persuasive argument about the nature of how this country articulates history through public art.


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