The Forum | General Education

Jonathan Zimmerman: Embracing the Preservation and Exploration of the Past

December 22, 2018

Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of History of Education at University of Pennsylvania, sat down with ACTA’s Erik Gross to probe the Silent Sam controversy at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, as well as to elaborate on why preserving the painful points of history is not the same as defending them.

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You recently wrote an excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education commenting on the Silent Sam controversy at UNC–Chapel Hill titled “Historians Should End Silence on Silent Sam,” which lamented the rejection of the history center to house Silent Sam as well as the silence among historians on the issue. Can you elaborate on your views?

The message I was trying to convey was that the answer to this problem that we have—white supremacy in our history and in our present—is never to try to diminish, to destroy, or to remove the history. I have an interesting position here because the battle has been so polarized between people on the left that want to eliminate this statue and southern white people that believe it’s a symbol of their region, of their pride, and indeed their race. It puts me in an awkward position, because if you argue for preserving the statue in any way, through guilt by association, people will put you in the same camp as these defenders of Silent Sam. And let me be clear: They are wrong. I absolutely agree with critics of the statue, and I can show you that it was put up for racist reasons. I don’t think that history is in serious dispute. The dispute here is what to do with it.

An effort to purge history is often an attempt to remove its nuances.

As a historian, I cannot get behind the idea of destroying the history. The history of these statues and how they were used to support racist causes . . . I don’t understand how anyone who is an anti-racist could want to suppress that. The very short answer is that as a historian, my professional duty is the preservation and the exploration of the past. It strikes me that this proposed history center was something that any professional that believes in those goals should support.

Perhaps we could not just explore the history of the Civil War, but also the history of how it has been remembered.

Precisely. And that might be even more important. At UT–Austin, they’ve tried to do that with the Jefferson Davis statue. I know there have been critics of that display, because people disagree about the positioning and interpretation of history. But their goal was to give people an analysis of why these statues were erected, why they’ve been controversial, why they’ve been criticized, and why they’ve been taken down. That’s something that historians should support. That’s history, too. That’s the history of memory, the history of the debate. At UNC, that’s going to be significantly less likely. My inbox has been flooded with comments asking how I could be defending this racist symbol. But that’s not the point. I’m trying to make a claim for my profession and its duty.

How do we promote a culture where people are willing to grapple with these issues, and not just avoid them?

None of us have all the answers. I would say that grappling with these important issues would be more likely with a history center that presented the story of Silent Sam than without one. The answer is to not destroy pieces of the past. Having historical displays that explain and explore the past is a first step.

I’d be interested in a museum that does a comparative study of statues and figures whose meaning has changed over time. We could even bring Woodrow Wilson into the conversation.

I wrote a piece when protesters at Princeton were arguing that the Woodrow Wilson building’s name should be changed. To me, an effort to purge history is often an attempt to remove its nuances. Everything the protesters said about his racial views was correct. But he was also in some ways the father of the modern state. Wilson’s legacy is a deeply, deeply checkered one.

The whole idea that if you don’t agree, you haven’t listened, is one of the most odious ideas right now.

This battle should be analyzed through a much broader lens regarding how we make sense of and interpret these highly imperfect, often highly prejudiced (by our standards) figures from the past. There are many, many good answers to that, but obliterating them is never the answer.

How do you think Princeton handled the Woodrow Wilson controversy?

I think the president handled it extremely well. He listened, but he didn’t necessarily agree. And there again seems to be an elemental distinction that in our polarized moment, we’re losing. A lot of people emailed me after my recent piece and said, “Weren’t you listening?” And I said I was listening. I acknowledge that people at UNC, especially minorities, were deeply perturbed by this. But listening and agreeing are different. The whole idea that if you don’t agree, you haven’t listened, is one of the most odious ideas right now. The way you show respect for people is not just to nod your head and say “Yeah, you’re right.” The way you show respect for people is to listen and then to critically analyze what they’re saying.

A history professor of mine once commented that in Germany you can hardly walk a block or two without a statue or a plaque reflecting on World War II and the Holocaust. She lamented that there is not a real American equivalent for dealing with its own racist past. How would you like to see a commemoration of this sort embodied in America?

I think your professor is right. There’s never been an official apology for slavery. The Germans apologized for the Holocaust. I think the answer again is to contextualize displays of the past. There’s a new museum about lynching. I think it’s a great example of the kind of things we need. One of the protesters said, “This lynching thing, it’s so hateful, it’s so offensive, and we should destroy the records and evidence of that.” That, to me, would be an enormous tragedy. Lynching is one of the worst crimes in our nation’s history, and needs to be addressed. If that suffering isn’t remembered, that’s not a victory. That feels like a defeat.

Can you think of any cultures that have done a good job unpacking shameful parts of their history?

What that requires is small “d” democracy. You can only have that short of critical analysis of the past in situations where you are free to critically analyze. In this case at UNC, we are not taking full advantage of our opportunity.

Lynching is one of the worst crimes in our nation’s history. . . If that suffering isn’t remembered, that’s not a victory. That feels like a defeat.

Look, you can say, “In this digital age, nobody is really censoring the conversation. You can still educate yourself.” And that’s 100% true. But we’re also talking about likelihoods here. Is it more likely that more people will learn about what Silent Sam represents with a history center (in the future), or without one? I think more people should know about Silent Sam and the controversy over him than fewer people.

So you’re disappointed with the historians that aren’t of your persuasion?

I would say yes, but I’m actually more disappointed with the historians that agree with me and aren’t raising their voices. I’m not criticizing them, I understand. I am, however, criticizing the political environment in which they feel inhibited to say that.

While the statue of Silent Sam was undeniably promoted by white supremacists at the turn of the 20th century to reinforce Jim Crow, the statue itself references UNC students, practically children, who followed the call into battle during the Civil War. They aren’t exactly Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. In large part, they were probably products of their environment. How do we teach the nuances and grey areas in history, and avoid the instinct to treat every historical figure as a good guy or a bad guy, rather than as an imperfect and complicated human?

That’s where the context and that’s where the nuance has to come in. As I understand it, three quarters of able bodied white men in the eleven Confederate states fought in the Civil War. That’s going to represent an enormous diversity in and of itself: a huge number of different motivations and different understandings. Is there and should there be a difference in how we think about Jefferson Davis versus a fifteen year old boy that was conscripted into fighting? I think there is. But we won’t even get at that unless we have this sort of display. Just having Silent Sam there doesn’t do the job. And that’s why he had to come down. Because Silent Sam was put up to celebrate racism. I wrote at one point that when he came down, they should have left him like that—just the toppled statue. With the appropriate context and the appropriate explanation, I think that would be a stunning monument. It would tell us both why it went up and why it went down.

Can you give a quick synopsis of your 2017 book, “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools”?

It was co-written with a philosopher, Emily Robertson, as part of a series. We try to make a plea for why the kind of difficult issues that you and I discussed should be taught at high school and younger grade levels. I wrote a column about this after the Berkeley protests, because Carol Christ, the chancellor, made what I thought was the most honest statement about what was going on. She said, “We get these people after 18 years of school. If they haven’t been socialized and educated in how to engage in these discussions, why should we think that we’ll be able to turn that ship around?”


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