After the recent events in Charlottesville, Va., the status of Confederate statues all across the country has come into question. While many believe that they should be removed for their connection to white supremacy, critics argue that doing so would be to remove a piece of history. Universities have an interest both in preserving history and in upholding modern values so how they choose to handle this issue can serve as a model for the rest of the country.
Recently, Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin to museums where they can be contextualized rather than celebrated. It’s a sign that administrators are beginning to realize the issues that arise from maintaining monuments as markers of history.
The role monuments play in preserving historical memory is highly questionable. In fact, they may often distort our perspective of the past rather than elucidate it. The difficulty of history, especially for volatile issues, is that a complete understanding requires adopting multiple perspectives. The effect of statues like the one that stands in Virginia, is to present one narrative, one perspective and to put it above all others by virtue of its place atop the pedestal.
When viewed in this light, the role of monuments, especially those of Confederate figures, can no longer be seen as benign. The act of memorializing — and by extension, celebrating — these figures is clearly political and there is undoubtedly a danger in showing such deference. And if we are to take seriously the role that public statues play in altering our understanding of history, then this conversation cannot be limited to the subject of Confederate generals.
In his statement following the events in Charlottesville, President Trump warned that the desire to remove the statue of figures like Robert. E. Lee could perhaps lead our country down a . According to Trump, the same critical perspective could be applied to our slave-owning founding fathers. "I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” said Trump. “You know, you really do have to ask yourself — where does it stop?"
While many in the media have viewed Trump’s comparison of Washington, Jefferson and Lee as a , I’d argue that his sentiment poses a more difficult problem than some might like to admit. Surely there is a clear distinction between the ideological messages of Lee and Washington, but that doesn’t also mean we shouldn’t question the way we honor the latter.
Even before the events in Charlottesville, universities across the country — — had been struggling with the question of how to honor historical figures without betraying our modern values.
Although it did not involve a proponent of the Confederacy, Penn too has endured controversy over how to balance tradition and change. The decision by a group of students to that hung in Fisher-Bennett Hall with an image of Audre Lorde — a radical, black feminist writer — was seen by some, including my fellow columnist, James Lee, as an example of .
This controversy was clearly distinct from our current debate, most notably because the portrait's removal was not due to the ideology of Shakespeare himself but for the sake of including more diverse writers whose import was seemingly diminished by the centrality of the Bard. However, the reasoning behind the removal could easily be applied to other mementos and, as Lee argued, begs the question of where to draw the line. “What’s next?” Lee asked. “Are we going to get rid of all the Ben Franklin statues on campus?”
When I hear arguments like this, I’m often struck, not by the prospect of change, but why so many are weary of it. Honoring a historical figure through statues and monuments is more often an act of consecration than it is education. The fact that so many view Confederate statues as symbols of Southern pride is to my mind one of the strongest reasons why they should be taken down. When our fellow citizens come to identify with white supremacist figures as one would a hometown or favorite baseball team, they are undoubtedly robbed of historical objectivity.
The simple act of questioning the presence of Confederate monuments in our city centers has brought to light details about the statues themselves that would likely have remained largely unknown had their status not been challenged. Now that the story behind their construction — — is becoming common knowledge, we as a society may further understand their role in promoting white supremacy.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that we should topple every monument that doesn’t align with our current ethical norms, but rather that putting these symbols above question is a far greater threat to our historical understanding than simply proposing their removal. The true danger is not the desire for change but the refusal to consider it.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College senior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Thursday.