Auchter's Art: It's time to stop teaching Great Man history | Michigan Radio
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Auchter's Art: It's time to stop teaching Great Man history

Jun 19, 2020

This week, the City of Detroit removed a bust of Christopher Columbus from its pedestal near the entrance of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. It's in storage for now as the mayor and city officials decide what to do with it. No doubt it has historical value — it's 110 years-old. Like many Columbus-related honors, this one came as a gift from Italian-Americans.

Columbus sailed under the flag of Spain, but he was born in Genoa in what is now Italy. Promoting the memory of Columbus was a way for Italian-Americans — who were heavily discriminated against as new immigrants in the early 1900s — to promote themselves as "real" Americans. So the statue was less about honoring Columbus the person and more about what Columbus represented.

In a similar way, we know the statues and military bases in the South were not so much about honoring the supposed virtuous lives of Confederate Generals as it was about intimidating Black people many years after the war to codify Jim Crow laws.

Still, history can be a very sensitive thing. We as a society need to be careful about how we handle it. The best take on this that I've seen is a recent post by journalist Mike Peterson on his Cartoon Strip of the Day blog. What should we do?

The answer is to stop teaching Great Man History and switch to Major Moment History.

The coming of Europeans to the New World was a Major Moment, and it’s more important to study what it meant to everyone — everyone — involved than to memorize the names of individuals in the big chairs.

Important Point: The cure for Great Man History is not adding the names of Great Women and Great Minorities to the list of meaningless crap kids have to memorize.

It’s teaching how Major Moments — inventions and immigrations and wars and pandemics and economic booms and busts — changed normal lives and, hence, the flavor and tone of the entire nation.

It means fewer statues and more local museums.

John Auchter is a freelance political cartoonist. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

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