How should we evaluate and celebrate historical figures?

How should we evaluate and celebrate historical figures?
Focusing on today’s 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 — setting the stage for centuries of European exploitation and colonization in the process.

To judge a historical figure based solely on their era’s standards is to ignore centuries’ 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’ because they were “appropriate for their time” 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 “heroes” 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 — though still disputed — in its time, but that doesn’t 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 “judging” often implies stark criticisms and blanket statements. Judgment, however, doesn’t 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 — 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’s 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’t 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 — 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’s 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’s legacy highlights the reckoning that traditional historical “heroes” now face. Changes in social norms prompt us to reevaluate historical figures through the lens of contemporary values — 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.

“Canceling” these figures — including removing statues and renaming buildings — erases history, inhibiting our ability to understand them as complex individuals. “Canceling” 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’t 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’s 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’t is a difficult distinction to make. The American Ornithological Society’s plan to rename all bird species named after people is a case in point. Unable to determine which birds’ 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’t about endorsing wrongful actions, but about recognizing the complexities of their impact and learning from it. “Cancel culture” 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’ 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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About the Contributors
Violet Tivol
Violet Tivol, Reporter
Junior Violet Tivol is a reporter for The Oracle. Outside of school, you can find her writing puzzles, playing board games or sports, watching movies or trying new foods.
Annabel Honigstein
Annabel Honigstein, Forum Editor
Senior Annabel Honigstein is a forum editor for The Oracle. She enjoys reading outdoors, drinking absurd amounts of coffee and traveling.
Sophie Rong
Sophie Rong, Graphics Freelancer
Senior Sophie Rong is a graphics freelancer for The Oracle. In her free time, she enjoys creating art, solving math problems, and reading.
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