MacDonald: Teach major figures in history, but don’t celebrate them all

Alexandra MacDonald

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There’s a famous saying that history is written by the victors, falsely attributed to the likes of Napoléon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill. Beyond that, there is some truth to the saying; otherwise it probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is.


When history is written by the winners, it appears that they were ultimately right and the losers were destined to fail. That shouldn’t necessarily mean the erasure of what really happened — we can’t ignore true history if we want to teach it in the future.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned a lot of heads. The infamous rally in 2017, where white supremacist James A. Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, turned sour when tensions arose over a several-months long attempt to rename two public parks and remove a confederate statue.

Jason Kessler, a well-known American supporter of neo-Nazism, expressed at the Unite the Right rally that the removal of the statue was a much larger argument. 

The statue itself is symbolic of a lot of larger issues,” Kessler said. The purpose of the rally was to advocate for white interests and free speech, Kessler said.

When the rally itself became violent, resulting in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others, it became painfully clear that this rally was about the protection of confederate history, and the city council’s decision to rename the parks and remove the statue was triggering the fears of white nationalists. 

The issue was that people didn’t want their confederate history being erased. Surprisingly, being the descendant of an oppressive Southern slave-owner was something to be proud of.

If we choose to honor the aspects of history that don’t showcase the most honorable and valued components of American life, we are not respecting why the fight had to occur.”

The topic of the Civil War returns time after time because of historical erasure. Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general who commanded over the Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 until the war’s end in 1865. Lee is an objectively significant part of American history because of his extremely successful division and being the ultimate commander of the unsuccessful Confederate Army. 

However, because the values and morals of the defeated Confederate Army — such as protecting Southern society, where slavery played a major role — are not currently aligned with the values and morals of modern American society, Lee should not be put on a pedestal or statue. 

The important part of teaching and learning about history is the education on why the “losers” were unsuccessful. If we choose to honor the aspects of history that don’t showcase the most honorable and valued components of American life, we are not respecting why the fight had to occur. 

For example, recognizing a significant figure like Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler is absolutely essential for the education of modern-day Germany. But because of his regime’s agenda, causing the mass murder of nearly 11 million people, he should never be respected as an honorable figure in history.


Without teaching the history of Nazi Germany, the new and upcoming generations might not understand why such a bloodstain on human history was made and how it can be avoided. 

We should teach the significant figures in history regardless of what side of history they are on, but we shouldn’t put them on a pedestal if what they represented does not match what we value in modern society. Teaching context explains why the world is the way it is today, and without it, we wouldn’t need to teach history to begin with. 

Alexandra MacDonald can be reached at or on Twitter @alexandramacc.