Columbus and the Broader Question about Monuments, Part II

This week, we’re continuing our discussion about the project Ms. Vilensky completed with her students at the Columbus Jewish Day School, where they tackled the difficult discussion about the controversy around historical monuments. In case you missed it, please check out the first part of this post. In  part one, we shared resources and the outline of the project. Today we’ll will talk about their results and some of our takeaways.

Since Ms. Vilensky and her students were discussing the removal of statues in honor of Christopher Columbus (or Cristoforo Colombo or Cristóbal Colón), they researched many articles from the local media, learned more about this historical figure’s life and debated about how monuments may or may not honor the memories they are supposed to uphold. According to Ms. Vilensky, “these kids were definitely capable of grappling with the complexities of history, so it was really important to me to give them as much information as I could in order to make their final decisions. I wanted them to see multiple perspectives in order to be able to appropriately defend their positions.”

Before getting into the details of their suggestions, I want to preface that I had a chance to interview the students to get their feedback on the project. They all seemed to really enjoy it, and they all engaged in our conversation. They told me that the discussion was actually extremely interesting and they didn’t think it was particularly hard. In fact, the hardest part was to make a final decision on their recommendation. They all felt that the arguments against and for the statues were valuable and made good points, so they had a hard time making the decision. Moreover, the project made them think about how we honor people’s memories and stories in general, and they were able to reflect on how their faith and heritage influences the way they think these memories should be honored.

There was a heavy emphasis on integration at their school, so the Judaics teacher, Eran Rosenberg, was part of the project, as well. He taught the students that Jewish people don’t traditionally honor others through statues, but rather through emulating behaviors. The students were able to incorporate that idea into their final project by suggesting that each statue have an inspirational quote, encouraging visitors to embrace the person’s worthiest qualities.

We’ll jump now all the way to their conclusion to the question: should we remove, keep or modify the statues?

Rony: We are not taking down Christopher because he changed the world and our city is named after him. We are adding these other statues because they are important people from Ohio and changed the world. Children are in the middle because that is the future of Ohio.

Zeke: We are not taking down the Columbus statue, but taking his statue and adding it with impactful and important people from our Ohio history and two kids. We shouldn’t forget the contribution that Columbus made for America and all of the western hemisphere, by “discovering” it and making it the way it is today. But we are also putting famous Ohioans and two kids in our suggestion to show that Columbus isn’t the only one who made a difference towards Ohio. And children are the future of our nation and they will become the next leaders and contributors.

Jonah: We are not taking down the Columbus statue because of the contribution that Columbus made by connecting the two hemispheres, but we are adding more statues because they are important people in Ohio history. Children are elevated in the center because they are the future of the state of Ohio.

As you can see, they decided that removing the statues were not the way to go. It’s important to note that Ms. Vilensky position was actually for the removal of the statues. She did an incredible job in keeping her personal view outside of that discussion, and not allowing her own biases to influence the student’s decisions.

Instead of removing the statues, these students suggested the addition of other statues, explaining the contributions of each one of the suggested figures: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Tecumseh, the Wright Brothers, John Glenn, Toni Morrison, a boy and a girl (representing the children of Ohio).

During the project, they learned that Jewish people honor their memories by modeling people’s behaviors. For this reason, they decided to include an inspirational quote under each statue, encouraging visitors to embrace the person’s worthiest qualities.

Rony:  We designed this sculpture to show how important these people are, but in Judaism, people don’t believe that we should have statues. How we usually honor them is by learning what they taught and being like them.

Zeke: In Judaism, we don’t honor people by building and creating statues. We believe that putting up statues shows that one is better than the rest of us and that we idolize and praise them. And those messages are not something we stand for in Judaism. We honor their legacy by living by their teachings, work, and messages they taught us. We act like them and remember them and we don’t idolize them. And we remember that no matter how successful and famous they were, we are all equal.

Jonah: In Judaism, we believe that you should not honor people with statues, but you should honor them with your actions. If we wanted to honor and respect someone, we would not put up a statue, but we would continue the work that they did so we can carry on their legacy. We remember what they taught us, and then we teach it to others to honor their work. We also believe that there should not be anybody that is raised above everyone else. Everybody was created equal and nobody should stand above everyone else.

Even though their faith doesn’t support the existence of statues like this, they think it can be used to show the value of important contributions. That’s how they view the statues, not as a praise to one particular person only, but what behavior they model. Here you’ll find a table where they displayed the statues they proposed, the figures contribution and the behavior to model.

What I took from this experience is that if you provide students with agency and support, they will do an incredible amount of research and critical thinking, getting to build their knowledge, their communication skills and the confidence to express their opinions. Independent of my own opinion about historical monuments, the historical figures above mentioned and the students’ conclusions, I cannot deny that the project was a compelling and structured way to bring this discussion into the classroom. Not only did they enjoy it, but it allowed the students to developed their own understanding about a complex issue.

What about you? Have you done anything like this in your class?

Posted October 26, 2021

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