Using memorials and monuments educationally, not “indoctrinationally”

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial (as seen from the MLK Memorial, across the Tidal Basin)

In my last post I raised some of the challenges that present themselves to the public in the case of memorials and monuments and with public memory in general.  These were meant for every citizen approaching any memorial.  In this post, I am specifically writing about how we can make use of these in education.  As is often the case, the challenges here are the opportunities, as well.

The first thing is to remember, that memorials and monuments reflect at least two points in time: the historical event (or life) and the creation of the memorial/monument.  Both must be accounted for in making a successful historical visit.  (Note the important difference between memorials and landmarks!  The Alamo may stand today as a memorial for many things, but it is the same edifice that stood during the battle—it is not an artifice constructed in memoriam.)  When visiting a memorial with students, they should be given the tools to engage with the memorial in the most productive way.  In other words, we want to fuel students’ reflections on people or events, as opposed to blindly accepting the portion of the story or legacy that the memorial presents; we want to encourage thoughtful and informed criticism, not senseless iconoclasm; we want students to engage the artist/designer in dialogue regarding the legacy of the memorialized person or event; we want the students to exercise the tools of history and try to honestly understand the person or event and the contemporary era.

Walking into a monument can be like walking into a small party of closely-knit friends, sometimes it is hard to engage it; the symbolism is wrought into the design so plainly, it is like trying to follow a conversation laced with inside-jokes and private innuendos all the while being left out of the laughter.  There are two reasons the symbolism seems illusive to students: inexperience with cultural tropes and a lack of understanding surrounding the event.  There is a third reason applied to a larger audience than students, namely the development of esoteric conceptions of the artist or designer which require explanation from the artist or interpretive guide—these are rarely self-explanatory even if one is an adept in tropes or well-versed in the relevant history.  (For example, at the new MLK Memorial, the Mountains of Despair and the Stone of Hope are far from obvious without explanation being provided.)  Most memorials have attendant materials, websites or guides to explain their design.  These should be explored after the necessary prep work, but before or in conjunction with the memorial visit.

The Vietnam Memorial: a simple design, but laden with symbolism, including subsequently added elements

Perhaps it is not surprising that many memorials and monuments go up in honor of controversial people/events or those with controversial elements.  If one considers the National Mall alone, there are numerous examples.  By tasking the students with learning a debate and then engaging it, one creates circumstances for which the memorials and monuments are made more interesting.  For example, before visiting the Lincoln Memorial students can engage in debates about whether or not Lincoln’s actions in the Civil War eroded states’ rights, whether he was justified in suspending habeas corpus, or whether he was prejudiced himself (and, if so, did he evolve)—all questions that have been raised in our national memory of the man during the event.  Each remembered person or event has its own historical nuances embedded within its consciousness.  To see whether or not a memorial engages these nuances once a student has delved into the debate himself is rewarding on several levels.

The other side of the memorial coin is the time in which it is built.  The Lincoln Memorial is not dedicated until 1922.  By this time, the age of segregation has been reinforced in the highest court of the land and the last of the Civil War vets have passed away.  This memorial is unique among most of the others on the Mall, of course, because it would serve as a stage in future Civil Rights efforts and many other causes.  The adoption or absorption of the Lincoln legacy into the causes of other groups is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  It is probably worth noting that elsewhere, around the same time as the Lincoln memorial commission and dedication, other cities were building memorials to Confederate and Union officers.  At the dedication, the crowd was in segregated seating.

So, when visiting a memorial or monument, the person or event has to be adequately covered before the visit.  Where possible, engage the student in an existing debate—either one that is legitimately scholarly or one that has developed culturally around legacy.  One useful activity is to ask how the students would design a memorial to the event of the person—noting the possibility that they may rather have someone else: John Adams, for example, instead of Thomas Jefferson.  What would they emphasize?  (Note: this can be turned into a larger project that would include going through the planning procedures for an actual monument considering petitioning responsible governments, funding, location, civic response groups, etc.)  Another activity is to tap into student interests and have the class create a “museum” to the subject of the memorial that may ask questions the memorial neglected.  (More on student-made “museums” elsewhere.)  As I suggested on my blog, quote selections is another great way to introduce the memorial or monument—I particular recommend this activity to visitors of the MLK Memorial in DC.  After carefully researching an individual’s writing, what quotes would best represent him or her?  This can be used with events, too, as each event is surrounded by historical predecessors and people who made noteworthy commentary—it is not a requirement that quotes be positive depending on what is being reflected.  (A part of me has always regretted that none of the language from FDR’s executive order which initiated the Japanese Internment was included in the memorial—how we can commit atrocities is almost as important as remembering that we have succeeded in doing so.)

The National Park maintains the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and provides literature for the memorial

One of the reasons I suggest debates, is because of the staying power researching and supporting an argument has with students.  It demands reading, listening, writing and the gathering of evidence for the purpose of formulating the argument.  On the one hand, these are essential skills for everyone to possess; on the other hand, the process and information is lasting.  If students further engage each other’s arguments through assigned reading of each other’s papers during draft phases, the debate becomes more powerful, still, and ferments in their minds allowing them to bring really informed outlooks to the memorial.  This works whether you are considering legitimate scholarly debates about subjects or cultural legacy debates between regions, citizens and historians, etc.

Once at a memorial, there are a number of approaches that can be taken: 1) design a small survey for other visitors considering elements of the memorial, legacy of the event, knowledge that people bring to the memorial, etc.; 2) critique the memorial’s intent with its application: “does it successfully…?”  “do these elements call to mind…?” etc.; 3) ask students to analyze what the memorial remembers versus what it omits and further ask if this is just; 4) ask students if they think the memorial prompts further reflection or research; 5) ask students what a foreign visitor or someone from another region of the country (as applicable in some local monuments) would take away from visiting and exploring the memorial/monument—does this suggest success or failure for the memorial?  These are just a few of the options at one’s disposal, but the salient feature in all of these is to really reflect on how we are asked to remember, while considering what historical investigation suggests about the past figure or event.

If we accept that there is a certain subversive element in every memorial or monument—a design intended to direct your memory of X—than we can make an honest assessment of it.  Students will likely approach memorials the same way they do museums and history books: as authorities on the subject.  This is a passive acceptance of what is presented to them.  We do students a disservice if we allow them to accept without questioning and a greater disservice if we tell them to question without demonstrating to them the tools that allow them to ask informed questions.  Without those skills and lessons, we have really failed them.  We condemn them to either follow the herd like sheep or wander our city streets aimlessly seeking “change” without knowing what change they want or how to accomplish it.  Memorials, even more than poorly written textbooks or news reports, offer an excellent opportunity not only to teach about an event or person, but to teach about someone’s attempt to direct their one’s thinking.

The Korean War Memorial is in memory of the "forgotten war"

I am not arguing that memorials or monuments are thus bad things, necessarily, but take a look at Soviet monuments in Moscow or the Kim family in North Korea and one can see how it is that an attempt to “direct” thought regarding legacies can certainly be dangerous.  Naturally, American monuments are not the products of dictators—they are frequently the result of democratic processes, in fact.  As such I except the differences.  I do not think FDR memorial is akin to Stalinist programming and design, but I do stumble on his supposed legacy the most when I think of all the damaging things that are omitted from his memorial—his “Redlining” legacy is one of the major contributing effects to the decline of minority neighborhoods in our urban areas, for example, and about a mile or so away from his memorial is another dedicated to the American citizens of Japanese descent who were deprived of their rights by his executive order.

I think David Rieff’s article, “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance,” is an important acknowledgement of the challenges of memorial.  His statement that “the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics,” is an apt one for a country that has always been run by two parties (for the most part) and their dissidents.  He is quick to acknowledge the need for mourning, but also asks when it is that we forgive and forget, and further queries whether or not remembrances inhibit our ability to do that.  It is fair to argue that memorials and monuments may be free of “too much truth” in the same way that Rieff suggests eulogies are free of such, but that cannot be the end of it.  Just because we omit it from the eulogy does not mean we should obliterate it from our knowledge or overlook it in our investigations.  This is the trick with public memory.  This is the challenge and the opportunity in teaching with memorials and monuments.

It is necessarily different than the museum exhibit which generally, though not always or not always successfully, seeks to be more conscientious in its consideration of history.  Frequently, museum exhibits ask challenging questions, while attempting to provide the materials for thoughtful consideration on the issues at hand.  In lieu of those aids, teachers must provide the materials and present the initial questions that stimulate research and thought along these lines in the case of memorials and monuments.

Signer's Island is in Constitution Gardens on the National Mall remembering each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, all of whom would have been tried for treason

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

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