The "Erasing History" Conversation
A few years ago I was teaching George Orwell’s 1984, a novel that always spurs students to make parallels to contemporary politics and news media. This class was no exception. In one particular class, we were discussing Winston’s career, which involves incinerating old news clippings that in any way contradict the Party’s current lies about the past and present.
One student (white, female, closer to my age than to that of her peers) raised her hand and said that Winston’s job, and the Party’s attempts to erase history, reminded her of current attempts to “erase history.”
I suspected what was coming.
“It’s like people who want to tear down these Confederate monuments and rename buildings,” she went on, referencing something that was currently happening on our own campus. “It’s dangerous to erase our own history.”
This type of comment comes up a lot in response to 1984, as well as in conversations that involve the Civil War or former Confederacy more explicitly (in which case, I may go more into the historical elements in my response). In this particular moment, I felt anxious and under a lot of pressure, even though the conversational tone felt light. Here’s what I was thinking, all at the same time:
I don’t believe this student was “trolling” with her comment. While she may have known her comment would be controversial, she was asking/observing in earnest, perhaps hoping to find an ally in this debate, or to see her own views somehow confirmed.
I needed to address the issue of equating taking down Confederate monuments with erasing history, as these are not the same.
I needed to do so in a way that took into account other students’ feelings about these monuments (particularly as I had multiple Black students from the South in the class, who may have had their own strong feelings about these Confederate monuments).
I also needed to do so in a way that would invite the speaker to rethink her position––not to eradicate it altogether, but at least to see its complexities. I did not want to alienate this student, embarrass her, call her out, or make her feel attacked for her comment.
I was aware of the different subject positions involved and how they might impact the way this conversation went. The student was about twenty years older than most of the other students in the classroom (close to my own age, in fact), and I was mindful of how that might already make her feel marginalized within the classroom. And, being a white woman, I was aware of how my silence or refusal could be read as a kind of allyship with another white woman in the class, and a failure to protect African-American students who may feel harmed by rhetoric in defense of monuments honoring the former Confederacy.
As you can imagine, this was a lot to sift through in a matter of seconds!
Many readers may have found themselves in a similar situation––having to come up with the “right” response on the fly when confronted with a comment like this one.
In the end, I began by acknowledging merit in the student’s comment where I could. I said something along the lines of “You make a good point about the dangers of erasing history, which Orwell makes central to the characterization of a totalitarian regime.”
Then, I went on to address what was problematic in the student’s comment, but I did so by taking it out of the student’s domain: “Regarding your example, this is a big controversy right now. Some see Confederate monuments as ‘history,’ while others see them as a way of honoring someone who doesn’t deserve to be honored based on their beliefs and actions. But I do think it’s important to point out that taking down a monument and moving it to a museum, like we’ve done on UA’s campus, is not the same as erasing history––in fact, it’s actually providing more historical context.”
Here, I provided two examples to complicate the comment further: one that illustrated flaws in the comment’s reasoning, and one that showed some generosity to the student’s position. I indicated our English Building, which until recently had been named for a donor who was also a KKK leader. In this case, I noted, it was easier to see how the harm of maintaining the honor outweighs the harm associated with renaming.
Then, I gave the example of Thomas Jefferson: considered a hero by many U.S. citizens, he drafted the Declaration of Independence and established many founding principles of the nation; at the same time, he owned hundreds of slaves and published harmful, eugenicist writing that attempted to justify racial oppression. “How,” I asked, “do we ‘honor’ the contributions of Jefferson while also acknowledging the harm?”
On our scripts page, I discuss responses to these types of comments in the section “How to address a harmful comment when the student does not intend harm and/or is open to correction.” The scripts in this section prioritize learning and productive discussion.
Our instincts, and sometimes our own emotional reactions, may be to immediately call out the problematic or offensive nature of a student’s comment. In doing so, we are doing our job in protecting students potentially harmed by the comment, but we risk losing the commenter entirely: the student may see herself as silenced or “canceled,” and thus be less open to learning, questioning her own assumptions or beliefs.
Or sometimes, we have the opposite reaction. “The student didn’t mean any harm,” I might tell myself, thinking it’s better to kind of gloss over the moment rather than say something, humiliate the student, and risk inciting a major conflict in the class. In such cases, I may be protecting the speaker from embarrassment, but I add to the harm of the student’s comment by staying silent. I signal to students harmed by the comment that they’re on their own: if they want others to see the flaws in the student’s reasoning, they will have to speak up themselves.
My own goal in these scenarios, ironically, goes against many of my instincts. When I hit a tense moment in the classroom, I often just want the discomfort to go away. I want to return to the text and the lighthearted way my students were discussing it just a moment before. Despite these instincts, I know we have to languish in the discomfort for a bit. I tend to follow a particular formula:
Take the comment out of the student’s domain (make it something we’ve heard others argue);
Indicate any merit of the position;
Indicate the problem with the line of reasoning, providing evidence and/or examples where possible; and
If possible, end the response by reframing the debate (as I did with the Jefferson question), keeping the conversation open to indicate the complexity of the issue.
My response was just one way of handling this particular type of comment––the way that fits with my DEI goals, my pedagogical style, and my personality. Take a look at our scripts page for other ways of addressing problematic comments when the speaker does not appear to intend harm and/or is open to correction.
When I encounter these moments, I always think of things I wish I would have said after the fact. The “erasing history” conversation isn’t one to move quickly past––it’s important, and it presents an opportunity to encourage students to think more critically about their own positions and perceptions of “history.” I might have taken the student’s comment out of her domain and asked the class what constitutes “history” on a campus, or in a community.
I might have pointed to histories that have been erased, that many educators are attempting to represent through their work––like the history of slavery on my own campus, which my colleague Dr. Hilary Green recounts on her Hallowed Grounds Tour.
The key takeaway here: When a student makes a comment that seems to champion a problematic narrative of history, try to challenge the narrative without directly calling out the student. The goal isn’t to embarrass the student or even to necessarily change her mind, but to guide all the students to see the complexity of these debates, to at least question their preconceptions and see the stakes in believing any particular version of history.