Equity & Diversity

Are Confederate-Statue Controversies Teachable Moments?

Efforts to remove Confederate statues stoke class discussions
By Stephen Sawchuk — June 20, 2017 6 min read
Elizabeth Aine Harding, center, and other girls spread rose petals around a Confederate monument as part of a Memorial Day observance this year in Fredericksburg, Va.

When New Orleans officials removed the last of four Confederate monuments in the city in May, social studies teacher Hayley Breden didn’t avoid the potentially explosive topic. Instead, she used it as a jumping-off point for a discussion in her Holocaust and Human Behavior class on how history is remembered, transmitted, and commemorated.

“One of the assignments was to pick a shameful event, write a paper, and create an educational piece or memorial to teach it to others—what are appropriate and not appropriate, effective and not effective ways to remember events in the past?” said Breden, a teacher at Denver’s South High School. “The Confederate-monument issue paired really well with that question.”

The spate of efforts to remove the statues stretches from Baltimore to St. Louis to Arizona and shows no sign of abating by fall. Given how the movement is steeped in sensitive questions of identity, racism, and oppression, talking about it with students poses significant challenges for teachers, say history and education experts.

Yet as Breden’s unit suggests, done well, such discussions can create rich learning opportunities. The topic provides an entry point in U.S. history classes for discussing the Reconstruction era following the Civil War and the subsequent introduction of Jim Crow oppression.

More generally, the controversy offers lessons on how students can learn to read and interpret the monuments that populate public spaces all over the United States, said Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War historian and a former high school history teacher in Charlottesville, Va.

“The monuments themselves tell two stories. On the one hand, it’s about Robert E. Lee. It’s also about what the people who put up the monument want you to believe about Robert E. Lee,” he said. “In suggesting history is being erased by removing these statues, what’s often missed is that monuments already erase history—by selecting what will be remembered and how it will be remembered.”

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is removed in New Orleans. Some educators around the country are finding an entry point for lessons about the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and racism in current controversies over the removal of such statues.

One of the difficulties of approaching the topic of Confederate memorials is that Americans in general have a shaky grasp of Civil War history and an even worse understanding of the Reconstruction, leaving a vacuum that teachers need to be prepared to fill.

Often, curricula focusing on Reconstruction have emphasized significant political events, such as President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, rather than on the stories of the hundreds of freed slaves who rose to prominent positions as mayors, legislators, and governors during that time.

“We’re skipping over a 12-year period that helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement, for example, with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that was the first law to define citizenship and equal protection under the law,” said Jeremy Nesoff, an associate program director for Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit group that provides professional development to secondary teachers on controversial topics, including the Reconstruction.

‘Lost Cause’ Thinking

Some of those omissions have roots in the continued prevalence of “Lost Cause” thinking. The term refers to a discourse that views the Civil War as a fight over states’ rights or culture, omitting what nearly all historians agree was the prime cause of the war: slavery. Most of the Confederate monuments now under debate were erected between 1880 and 1940 as Lost Cause mythology flourished, and as Jim Crow laws undid the Reconstruction’s promise of a racially integrated America.

Lost Cause depictions also dominated school textbooks through at least the 1970s, Levin said.

And while many curricula now reflect contemporary historiography about the war, the falsehood that it wasn’t primarily fought over slavery remains influential, even among some who set classroom standards.

Look no further than Rep. Tommy Benton, a Georgia lawmaker who in March introduced a resolution to designate a Confederate History Month. The resolution conspicuously neglected slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and despite the ensuing controversy, the Republican lawmaker was recently named to a state panel on civics education.

Even for teachers who are up to date on their history, pitfalls await. For one, it’s easy for even well-meaning attempts at student discussion of monument removal to spill over into debates rooted in identity and ideology.

The Facing History group suggests having students probe some core questions first—for example, what responsibility do Americans bear for confronting their history?—and setting up rules for class discussion. Then, teachers should keep the talk anchored in content from primary- and secondary-source texts.

For a unit on the Confederate memorials, teachers might have students spend time analyzing the speech that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave upon the removal of the final Confederate statue; an article on the black activists key to bringing public attention to the statues; and a New Yorker piece outlining both supporters’ and opponents’ viewpoints.

“If you continue to return to the evidence and return to the texts and really interrogate that and make your arguments based on the texts, you can deepen students’ critical thinking about an issue, rather than prompting a reaction based on identity,” the group’s Nesoff said.

Breden used a similar strategy in her Denver classroom. “Whenever I talk about something in class that might be uncomfortable for students, I try to have them talk about a piece of writing or a video clip, rather than something about themselves,” she said.

Levin, the Civil War historian, has in the past used the monuments themselves—with plenty of structured preparation—as the centerpiece of a lesson.

During visits to the Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville, he had students put their research skills to use to answer increasingly sophisticated questions about the monument: What kind of a monument is it? How is the subject depicted? How visible is it? Who paid for it? What was said about it when it was dedicated? Would we dedicate a monument to Robert E. Lee today? If a contextual marker was placed in front of it, what would it say?

“One of the things I really want my students to understand is that monuments are not really about history; it’s about the people who put it up,” he said. “I want them to think about what that means today ... And how does that shape how we see that monument today?”

Connecting the past to the present is a lesson that Breden especially appreciates, because the echoes of the Lost Cause ripple even in true-blue Denver. Benjamin Stapleton, the city’s mayor from the 1920s to the 1940s, had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, and the city was then a stronghold for white supremacists, she noted. For decades, South High School’s mascot was “Johnny Rebel,” a Confederate soldier. (South’s mascot is now a gargoyle.)

Those connections helped make the Confederate-statue controversy relevant to her students. She’s proud that their discussions yielded different, but well-reasoned, arguments. Some of her students favored removing the statues to museums where they could be better contextualized; some favored coupling them with new explanatory plaques or exhibits acknowledging the horrors of slavery. But all of them thought about what it must be like for black residents to walk by or eat lunch in a park featuring a Confederate monument.

“They felt like it was really important to consider where the statue is,” she said, “and how accessible it is to people.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as The ‘Old South’ Rises Again in History Classes


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