Columns

We Need More Statues and Ways to Interact With History, Not Less

Why is history important? That may be the worst lead sentence to an article I’ve ever written. Just the word “history” makes most people lose interest. But it’s important to know where we came from, how we got here, the mistakes made along the way, and the victories hard-won over evil, tyranny, and injustice.

Historian and author James L. Haley summed it up pretty well recently: “Everything that you believe in this world that’s important—what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s moral, what’s immoral, how should you live, vote, worship, raise your children—everything you believe, filters like coffee through what you ever understood about history, or not. It’s not something you walk out and make a living with, but it informs everything about what kind of human being you are.”

Exactly right. What kinds of human beings are we raising up now?

History and civics teachers across America should humbly acknowledge that they have failed their students and our nation. The honest ones taught facts and stories but mostly failed to break through. The propagandists taught seductive lies and hit their mark. We have too many who’ve been raised with the blessings of being American who are now spoiled and hate the country that allows them the freedom to say so.

Tell someone from China, North Korea, Cuba, or Venezuela how oppressed you are as a college student at American University or Oberlin and if you get any reaction at all, it will just be a blank stare. They’re not allowed to speak their minds under the possible penalty of death. Sure, they can say they hate America too. They’re practically required to say that. But they cannot criticize the system that really oppresses them every second of every day.  

We have a generation rising up that will eventually run our nation, and a substantial portion of it hates our nation. How many is hard to say, but it certainly includes a majority of the mainstream media. They almost exclusively give attention to the haters. It includes elected officials in Seattle, Portland, Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and too many other cities. This doesn’t bode well for the future. This set doesn’t even understand how our nation works.

It neither knows nor cares that most authority, especially law enforcement, is controlled at the local level — so that’s where accountability should be. Likewise, disaster recovery, as we see again and again after every hurricane when people blame the feds when the failures were usually closer to home. The media does precisely nothing to enlighten anyone. 

This anti-American cohort sees every aspect of America from its discovery to its founding to the flag it flies and the principles by which it operates as irredeemably racist and evil and only worthy of scorn and tearing down. They ascribe no good to the people or the achievements that led, one by one, to the freedoms they express every time they sound off or take to the streets. They take their liberty for granted and their hatred of our nation is a disaster in the making. Both are the result of failed education. Or successful propaganda. 

Whether by design or incompetence, government education has created millions who hate our country. There’s no getting around this anymore. 

There is no easy or quick solution to this. When people see only the negative attributes of giants such as Thomas Jefferson they are seeing truth, but only a sliver of it. He wasn’t perfect but neither are we. Likewise, when they see or are presented only the good. Neither picture is balanced, or even all that interesting. Today too many are seeing and acknowledging the evils of the past but not the achievements.

They are either unaware of, because they were not taught it, or are choosing to ignore the good for their own purposes. Statues go down around the country, one by one, either to mobs or to cities led by those who do not know our history or who only know the worst parts of it. 

Our educational system has failed to transmit the nuance of humanity and history to rising generations. Those who tear down statues out of rage, often destroying monuments to great writers, abolitionists, and other leaders for no apparent reason other than hatred of our entire culture and history, are attempting to erase the facts of humanity and history. They must be stopped and prosecuted. If there is good news out there, it’s that arrests are starting to happen. And in his Mount Rushmore speech, President Trump called for more statues to be created and placed to salute our national heroes. 

He’s on to an idea. One solution to the death of history and civics might be to move more history teaching from the classroom and into the public spaces where people can choose to learn on their own. We need more statues and exhibits of people who have done good, courageous, and noble things. Statues of people such as Harriet Tubman, the gun-toting woman whose own social network led slaves to freedom and Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the friend of presidents and eloquently made the case for equality and freedom (and whose statue someone tore down over the Independence Day weekend). And more.

We have to know our history if freedom is to survive. We need more statues of people who invented things, spoke or wrote down great ideas, overcame great odds, created jobs and made the world better. More, more, more. 

And when miscreants pull a statue down, it gets replaced and two more go up along with it. This would send the message that you cannot erase our history, you can only make it bloom.  

These new and old statues should be enhanced with more information about who they represent, the good and bad highlights of their lives, and the reasons they were memorialized at the time or are memorialized now. Given the ubiquity of digital technology, statues and monuments could be fitted with codes leading to updated apps and websites with deep information and resources to put the humans they call us to remember into context. This could bring these people, their ideas, and their times, back to life.

You can say people won’t follow through on their own, and to some extent that’s right. But not entirely. We did something like this when I produced an exhibit at the Alamo a few years ago. We brought static artifacts to life via digital interactive touch-based technology and content. More than 600,000 saw that exhibit, and I got to watch kids react to the presentation of artifacts the way they usually react to video games. Their eyes lit up. Bringing history to life can be done, it just takes imagination and vision. 

There are some obvious problems with this idea. That the haters will find ways to tilt the interactive resources negatively is one. But that can be worked out through rigorous scholarship and balanced treatments from real historians. 

So, say, rather than removing statues in the dead of night as Dallas’ Love Field airport recently did to a Texas Rangers statue, with no debate, balance or public input, and based on a biased and faulty premise, that statue could have been enhanced with real scholarship from historians who know the Rangers best, and with interactive technology to meet people how they learn now, not 50 or 100 years ago. The Rangers deserved better than this.

The bottom line is that we cannot allow our history, the positives and the negatives, the good and the evil, to be erased. A people with no memory has no future.

As a historian friend of mine likes to say, we have to rediscover America. Or we’re in danger of losing it.

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