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How should we evaluate and celebrate historical figures?

How should we evaluate and celebrate historical figures?
Focusing on today鈥檚 moral standards

For centuries, Christopher Columbus was lauded as a great adventurer. He did what few had done before and braved the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean to claim glory and riches. Yet, in recent years, his legacy has come under scrutiny: He displaced, enslaved, dehumanized and killed many of the native people he encountered 鈥 setting the stage for centuries of European exploitation and colonization in the process.

To judge a historical figure based solely on their era鈥檚 standards is to ignore centuries鈥 worth of social development. Although it is impossible to expect historical figures to have lived according to our societal norms, excusing horrific actions such as Columbus鈥 because they were 鈥渁ppropriate for their time鈥 is disingenuous to ourselves today. It is necessary to evaluate historical figures based on our current standards to develop a more accurate understanding of traditional 鈥渉eroes鈥 while creating room for new narratives in the historical pantheon.

In 2017, the PAUSD Board of Education unanimously voted to rename Jordan and Terman Middle Schools because their original namesakes, David Starr Jordan and Lewis Madison Terman, were leaders of the eugenics movement, a pseudoscientific cause rooted in white supremacy and ableism. Their movement may have been popular 鈥 though still disputed 鈥 in its time, but that doesn鈥檛 justify their discriminatory beliefs. Honoring these men as figureheads of our middle schools brings their values into the present. Judging them by current moral guidelines is necessary because even though they are figures of the past, celebrating them occurs in the present. Thus, our expectations for them must be based on contemporary values.

The word 鈥渏udging鈥 often implies stark criticisms and blanket statements. Judgment, however, doesn鈥檛 need to be black and white. Thomas Jefferson, for example, supported individual freedoms while enslaving people. If we only evaluate a historical figure like Jefferson by the societal norms of his time, we assess him by the norms set by those in power in the 1800s 鈥 people who, at the time, condoned slavery. By reevaluating him using our current standards, we can create a fuller judgment relevant to our time that includes both deserved praise and necessary critique.

While removing a historical figure鈥檚 statue or name can cause backlash, it creates space for recognizing historical figures who better reflect our values. Applying current judgment to historical figures isn鈥檛 erasing history but expanding it to include people who would not have received the same recognition in their own time. Figures such as Sacagawea, who was never credited in her own time but is now the face of the gold dollar coin, can serve as inspirations to students who feel underrepresented in history classes.

Judging historical figures by modern standards is also essential in teaching. As products of our current time, we have inherent biases that are impossible to separate from our history education. Understanding these biases can help us contextualize our learning instead of trying to escape it. If we are to learn from history, we must teach it for the present.

By focusing on historical context and standards, we dismiss our responsibility to the betterment of our standards 鈥 and the countless people who have always condemned wrongdoing, even in the past. In assessing these figures through a contemporary lens, we can reevaluate how and which historical figures we celebrate and why. We can hold ourselves accountable and strive to build ourselves into better moral models for our current society and generations to come.

Focusing on the context of their times

On June 19, 2020, protesters toppled and defaced statues of historical figures in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Among the fallen bronze was President Ulysses Grant, who led the Union armies in the Civil War. Grant鈥檚 legacy, like that of many leaders, is complex: He was instrumental in defeating the Confederacy and enacted laws to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan, yet his family kept an enslaved servant even after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Grant鈥檚 legacy highlights the reckoning that traditional historical 鈥渉eroes鈥 now face. Changes in social norms prompt us to reevaluate historical figures through the lens of contemporary values 鈥 but this shift, realistically, cannot be done. It is crucial to understand these figures in the context of their times for a balanced perspective that recognizes their positive impacts as well as their shortcomings, while understanding that the society they experienced was notably different from ours.

鈥淐anceling鈥 these figures 鈥 including removing statues and renaming buildings 鈥 erases history, inhibiting our ability to understand them as complex individuals. 鈥淐anceling鈥 a historical figure means perceiving them as unworthy of commemoration, often labeling them as wholly evil or irrelevant. Conversely, choosing not to cancel a figure entails emphasizing the importance of continued learning and commemoration despite their imperfections. Instead of removing and replacing, we should add and revise curricula to provide a more comprehensive perspective. Vandalizing or tearing down statues isn鈥檛 helpful; it disrupts dialogue and erases a piece of history. Similarly, excising books or outdated perspectives from curricula entirely can be counterproductive, as it limits our ability to confront and understand the past in its entirety.

History cannot be rewritten because its lessons are invaluable in shaping our future. Instead of erasing these figures from history, it is far more constructive to learn from their actions, recognizing both their positive contributions and failings. For instance, Thomas Jefferson, despite being an author of the Declaration of Independence and an advocate for democracy and individual rights, enslaved people. Analyzing Jefferson鈥檚 legacy in its entirety allows for a more profound understanding of history. This approach acknowledges the complexities of not only history but also human beings.

Moreover, renaming buildings or institutions creates further issues: Determining whose legacies are tainted and whose aren鈥檛 is a difficult distinction to make. The American Ornithological Society鈥檚 plan to rename all bird species named after people is a case in point. Unable to determine which birds鈥 namesakes were problematic, the organization took on the time-consuming task of renaming all species. These sweeping measures risk unwarranted changes in cases where the historical figures in question may not be as controversial.

Evaluating historical figures as a product of their times isn鈥檛 about endorsing wrongful actions, but about recognizing the complexities of their impact and learning from it. 鈥淐ancel culture鈥 often leads to a hasty erasure of controversial aspects of history and fails to provide comprehensive learning. Instead, we should aim for an informed engagement with history by embracing a balanced view that acknowledges both figures鈥 achievements and failings. Then, we can draw meaningful lessons from the past to inform a more ethical and nuanced understanding of the present and future.

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