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“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said.
We study history in part to understand the mistakes made in the past so we don’t repeat them. If we can truly learn the lessons of the past, we can make the world better.
In order for this to happen, however, we need to develop an historian’s perspective. Historians don’t just look at what people did, they look at the way they saw the world, what they thought and why they believed as they did. If we can take this perspective of objective observation, we can learn a great deal about our ancestors – and a great deal about ourselves.
When we draw hasty, judgmental conclusions, we miss out on valuable lessons.
Monuments and historical films, for example, often reveal important stories from our past. But they have a tendency to gloss over important details. Unless we examine the facts more closely, we can end up with a sanitized view of history.
A good example of this is the story of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British politician who spearheaded efforts to make the transatlantic slave trade illegal. Several monuments in England honour him, including a statue at Westminster Abbey. There was even a movie made about him, Amazing Grace, released in 2006.
While the film is excellent and shares an important message of patience and persistence when working to make the world a better place, many liberties were taken in telling the story of abolition in Great Britain. In the words of historian Adam Hochschild, “This curious movie seeks to lionize Wilberforce by portraying him as something he decidedly was not: a modern liberal.”
Wilberforce held views that many today would find unpalatable. For example, as a member of the wealthy ruling class, he believed it was the responsibility of men (and only men) like himself make the laws. Hochschild notes, “He did not support any of the various reform proposals that would have increased the less than five per cent of the population eligible to vote.”
Does this mean that Wilberforce’s statue should be removed from Westminster Abbey? Not at all. By remaining objective, we can see that some good men with property took their responsibility quite seriously and did all they could to improve society. Reforms that Wilberforce spearheaded, like changes to labour laws, improvements to the education system and the abolition of slavery, helped to bring about the societal changes that resulted in improvements to the electoral system.
At other times, when we examine the story behind a statue, we can develop empathy for people who suffered. One can only imagine the pain that Congolese people living in Brussels must feel when they walk past the large statue of King Leopold II (1865-1909), the man responsible for the often-ignored genocide in their African homeland.
It’s vital to understand history. It’s also important to participate in thought-provoking, informed and empathic discussions of the past. We can then make informed and respectful decisions about who we honour from the past and why we choose to do so.
When we can observe without judgment, we can see past triumphs and mistakes, the strengths and the weaknesses in present practices and, most importantly, we can create the future our descendants deserve.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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