I actually think teaching students about the positives and negatives of famous figures is a good thing. Apparently, I’m not alone.
What I despised about history was how boring it was when I was student: dates, figures, war, dates, figures, wars, etc. We never talked about the faults of the Founding Fathers like sleeping with slaves, drunkenness, or corruption; or the Socialist years of Hellen Keller; or the change in Malcolm X’s views after visiting Mecca; or how other stories of American legendary figures may have been exaggerated. Those people were stock and static; they weren’t real.
The only image I saw of Columbus was of him carrying a cross and a sword onto the American shore. We skipped the whole slavery thing, and the brutality thing, and the mean sea captain thing, and the extra voyages thing.
I wrote a post a while ago which relates to this. Here’s an excerpt from the original piece:
Instead of presenting what people truly feel and do as teachers (and in this case journalists), we are given a tale, a fabrication of the truth. Maybe truth can be stretched for a purpose as in a film like Big Fish, but I would prefer the truth.
Of course, this led me to think about the classroom as well. Students often tell me that some of the most interesting things they learn about the writers and historical figures in my classes are the imperfections; they tire of myth and want truth.
The students enjoyed hearing about how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden alone in the woods, but he allowed himself reprieves from the absolute isolation and independence of the famous pond when he would visit his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson from time to time. The students’ question “how could he do that for so long” is duly answered.
Ken Kesey became an interesting figure when the students learned of his drug use and flight from justice. Abraham Lincoln’s shifting views of slavery interested the students as did Benjamin Franklin’s dalliances with women, and Thomas Jefferson’s relations with his slaves, and the Colossus of Rhodes’ true appearance, and Thomas Edison’s ruthlessness, and Marie Antoinette’s attributed words about peasants eating cake (which she never said), and Napoleon’s true height, and how George Washington could be considered the 15th President of the United States.
They say the same things about the characters in the texts, too. Every year the students find Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities “boring” because she is not three-dimensional; she has no real imperfection. Lucie is perfect in every way and betters everyone around her. How dull! How predictable! But these same students love Sydney Carton’s boorish and drunken figure as he transforms himself from “a disappointed drudge” into a “far, far better” man.
When we reveal truth we may actually increase interest and appreciation.