The Fetishization of Historical Actors

As someone who studies how we talk about a particular type of history (Native/Indigenous) I wasn’t surprised when I found myself typing the following tweet: “All statues are is visual proof of the never-ending fetishization of single actors (which starts in elementary school, particularly the ‘founding fathers.’ they should all come down.” I deleted it because I didn’t want to risk some random person replying with a treatise on the importance of George Washington. I don’t care about George Washington šŸ™‚

But everyone’s attachment to statues (or more specifically, the people the statues represent) does demonstrate how engrained the notion of single actors is within our U.S. social studies/history curriculum. Part of my research focuses on how teachers and students discuss Indigenous and colonial content. Not suprising, most of the lessons and the class curriculum center on the singular individual. Students learn about Squanto but not the many tribal communities. Teachers discuss the “founding fathers” but fail to mention any one else. The curriculum fetishizes these people as if they are solely responsible for their acts and then this fetishization takes an outward approach through things like building names, statues, roads. I’ve long thought that we should teach history conceptually (e.g. genocide, colonialism), and only include specific historical figures in relationship to these concepts. Perhaps this is a project for the future.

I rarely gave much thought to this fetishization, or how it manifests itself in life outside of schools until two years ago. I was conducting a study in a classroom and the teacher was discussing George Washington (they loved GW). Anyway, they said several times that GW was elected by the people unanimously. That didn’t sound right to me so I made a note to double check this later. They continued to repeat this fact throughout the day. However, as I was packing up, the teacher said to me, “hey, I bet you’re wondering why I told the kids that.” Taking the opening I said, “yes! I was curious because I thought we didn’t do the popular vote until Adams.” To which they replied, “yep, that’s true. but telling students how GW was actually elected is complicated and doesn’t fit the narrative I have of Washington.”

Which is to say that it might behoove statue lovers everywhere to remember that what they learned in schools were very much likely the narratives teachers wanted to tell–and if we knew the true stories of these folks, no one would get a statue.


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