Healing Our History Culture Wars

It has become a life-and-death question: Who are the heroes of American history? In Charlottesville, we’ve seen that terrorists are willing to kill to defend the primacy of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee. This morning Rick Hess and Brendan Bell offer a better way to teach about the heroes of history. But it won’t be as easy as we might think. As historian Jonathan Zimmerman argued a while back, heroism in history is a kind of one-way valve. It is easy to add new heroes, but it is extremely difficult to question the essential notion of heroism itself.

Depending on how old you are and where you live, you likely heard one or another of the standard hero explanations of American history. If you’re old enough, you might have learned that the young George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. If you’re Southern enough, you might have learned that honorable Jacksons and Lees valiantly defended the Southland from rabid northern aggression. If you’re young enough, you might have learned that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. bravely defeated racism. If you’re hippie enough, you might have learned that heroic natives fearlessly resisted European imperialism.charlttesville confederate t shirt

In every case, though, the focus of most public-school history classes has been on the heroic accomplishments of great Americans of the past. The type of heroism varies over time and place, but the notion that the real story of the USA is a heroic one rarely does.

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It’s not hard to see the problems with this process. Whether we wear Che t-shirts or Confederate flag ones, we’re forcing real history into a cartoonish good-vs-evil pattern. And that’s bad for two reasons.

As Hess and Bell point out, black-and-white history is boring. As they put it,

We take influential yet complicated figures like MLK and Lincoln and turn them into plaster saints. When history is taught this way, debates about who gets to be a hero will inevitably feel winner-take-all, since it becomes an exercise in deciding who gets to serve as shorthand for all that’s right and just.

However, that’s not how Homer, Ovid or Shakespeare thought about “heroism,” and it’s not how we should either. We should learn just as much from heroes about what not to do as about what to do. If being an icon means careful attention to Jefferson’s slave-owning as well as his magisterial writing, if it means considering MLK’s philandering and plagiarism as well as his towering moral courage, then being on that pedestal is more of a mixed bag. And this is just good teaching, anyway. After all, the most gripping and instructive accounts of iconic figures are those that depict their humanity, their indecision and the price they paid along the way.

The best recent example of teaching heroes well may be the wildly popular musical “Hamilton.” One of the things that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully did was marshal a warts-and-all portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in a way that imbued these often starchy figures with immediacy and humanity. Hamilton is at once brilliant and licentious; Jefferson, elitist yet principled; Burr, murderous but complex. Though their flaws are apparent, so too is their greatness – indeed, their greatness is entwined with their flaws.

There’s an even more important reason to avoid good-vs-evil history. Good-vs-evil history teaches us to hate the people we disagree with. Why else would someone drive a car into a crowd to defend the honor of a long-dead Confederate general?

It would be terrific if we could teach history better. It won’t be easy, though. Professor Zimmerman argued that history culture wars are usually resolved by an intellectually vapid but politically expedient process. Every politically powerful group is allowed to add its heroes to the story. That’s easy. Taking away a hero, though, as we’ve seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere, is extremely difficult.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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