Statues Don’t Teach History, They Applaud It
Should we commemorate people like Cecil John Rhodes today?
Recently I saw a piece quoting the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson, saying removing from Oriel College the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the colonial administrator and financier, risks hiding history. The UK Prime Minister has also expressed the view, in a series of Tweets noting, particularly in relation to the statue of Winston Churchill, that “statues teach us about our past, with all its faults”. Am I the only one who thinks this is nonsense?
Statues are not about history or pedagogy but commemoration. Should we commemorate people like Cecil John Rhodes today?
If the Vice-Chancellor is so concerned about history you can take down the statue and leave a large plinth explaining Rhodes brutal history and Oxford’s relationship with colonialism. Or better still teach history in one of the esteemed colleges, or make a podcast, a movie or build a website, or even consult a book. I don’t learn history from statues. Does anyone?
Statues tell us who society values and about the values of those commemorated. The whole idea of statues (at least traditionally) is to make these values and the venerable person a permanent feature, hence the granite and bronze. There is no place for Rhodes-like values today. Rhodes not only embodied white supremacy he literally defined it in paper he gave at Oxford in 1877, he wrote: “I contend that we [the white English] are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence”. The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, argues we should understand such views of the past in the context of the time. But surely the point is we need to consider the views of the past in the context of present, not the other way around. The real question is should we be venerating a man who held such views today? This is not a historical question, or debate about context, it is a contemporary question about aspiration, values and the morality we wish to endorse.