Teaching About “History Wars”

The removal of Confederate statues around the United States can prompt discussions in the classroom over the nature of history and how we should remember our country’s past.
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The city of New Orleans removed the last of four Confederate memorials slated for relocation last week. The removal of the memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its pedestal 60 feet above Tivoli Circle was, in true New Orleans fashion, met with celebratory music and dancing by many in the city. Monuments dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place, P.G.T. Beauregard and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis came down this month in the early hours of the morning to avoid crowds and protesters. Behind police barricades, workers removed the monuments and hauled them away in trucks whose company names were “concealed by tape and cardboard,” presumably to protect the companies and workers from retaliation. The week following the removal of the Davis statue, someone erected their own monument in its place, a simple message: “LOVE.”

Editor's Note: This article was written in the spring of 2017, days after the city of New Orleans finished removing four prominent Confederate memorials, including a statue of Robert E. Lee, from public spaces. A little more than two months after it was published, a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—to protest the planned removal of another Lee statue—erupted into violence and turned deadly.

Yet, the New Orleans community as a whole appears to feel anything but “love” after the removal of the monuments. Indeed, the decision to remove the monuments was “bitterly contested.” It has highlighted serious divisions within the community, but it has also stoked the fiery local and national debates about the extent to which our nation’s violent legacy of slavery and entrenched racism shape our present.

As fresh as these debates may seem, they have been roiling for decades. New Orleans provides an illustrative case study. For example, debates and protests over the Battle of Liberty Place monument, erected in 1891, began in the 1960s and continued throughout the latter part of the 20th century. Believing that such monuments are “intended to send a message to black folks to stay in their places,” activist groups have rallied to remove them for some time. They’ve called out these statues as upholding white supremacy. Some opponents have suggested that the removal of Confederate monuments is “revisionist” history, an example of the broad erasure or rewriting of the past.

Once students return to school in the fall, teachers can use today’s debate over Confederate monuments in a number of ways and from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. For example, civics classes could discuss how cities and communities decide to erect or remove monuments through the democratic process. History classes could investigate when and why certain monuments were erected, by whom and for what reason. Geography classes could track monuments’ locations and what those locations tell us about the privilege or marginalization of various cultural groups.

Teachers can also zoom out just a bit and view the debate over the New Orleans monuments as it connects to larger “history wars.” Indeed, arguments for and against revising history are not limited to monuments. The United States has seen similar debates over K–12 history curricula in Oklahoma, Arizona and Arkansas, to name a few states. They’ve even developed over museum exhibits, such as the controversy over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit in the mid-1990s or the 1991 National Museum of American Art exhibit called “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920.”

As the debates rage on in New Orleans and elsewhere, teachers can use these current events to engage students in reasoned, thoughtful discussion about what “history” actually is and its proper role in a democratic society. History teacher Jonathan Gold argues that history is not “just the facts of what happened in the past”; it is “the story that gets written about those facts.” Despite what some lawmakers or pundits would have us think, the story is anything but neutral, and we must identify white supremacist historical narratives—including Confederate monuments—for what they are. This should not be considered a downfall. As historian Lynn Hunt explains it, “Seeing cannot take place without a standpoint. Every new age looks for an understanding of its place in time, and without history it would not have one.”

Seeing cannot take place without a standpoint. Every new age looks for an understanding of its place in time, and without history it would not have one.

But in a polarized, diverse democracy, the evolution of our historical understanding can be fraught with turmoil. Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, argues that it is time for Americans to embrace the challenge of coming to know “a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts.” To do so, Liu suggests a crowd-sourced list of things every American should know in 2017—an omni-American cultural literacy project. While Liu suggests everyone make their own list online (and submit it here), I recommend that teachers use the online list as a teaching tool in the classroom, both by examining what is on the crowd-sourced list and by having students deliberate to create lists of their own.

Depending on the perspectives in your classroom, this exercise might require uncomfortable conversations. Everyone won’t start at the same place or with the same moral code, and it will certainly engender deliberation. But deliberation is not predicated on common values. It is the method we use to establish common values, and to get there, we will have to be willing to see through multiple lenses, even those which are hard to look through. Liu suggests that, despite the discomfort, we should still argue (respectfully) with one another, if for no other reason than knowing that “the culture wars can give way to a conversation about the culture we are.”

As the United States grapples with conflicts over historical memory, we will need people who can talk together, to each other, about important issues. Our schools can and should be one of the main places where children learn such skills.

Schroeder is a doctoral candidate in curriculum, teaching and teacher education at the University of Florida and is a former secondary English and social studies teacher. She is researching democratic education, the social context of education and pre-service social studies education.

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