Opinion: Is it fair to evaluate heroes of past with present-day lens?

Visitors watch workers pressure-wash the granite faces of George Washington (from left), Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. (Charlie Riedel / AP file)

Credit: Charlie Riedel / AP file

Credit: Charlie Riedel / AP file

Visitors watch workers pressure-wash the granite faces of George Washington (from left), Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. (Charlie Riedel / AP file)

Peter Smagorinsky is an emeritus professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education. He is the 2023 recipient of the American Educational Research Association Lifetime Contribution to Cultural-Historical Research Award.

In this guest column, Smagorinsky discusses the challenges with using present-day social mores to judge the past.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Every so often, a concept from university classrooms and academic journals escapes the ivory tower and gets taken up in everyday discussions. You may have heard of critical race theory.

I’ve recently noticed another academic term popping up in the popular media. If you wonder why someone would now want to rename George Washington University because our first president was a slaveholder and because the Virginia-based university itself has a racist history, then you have experience with presentism.

I first became acquainted with this idea in the late 1960s, courtesy of my high school history teacher, Mr. Pearson, who advised us that “You can’t judge people of the past by the standards of the present.”

People from prior eras, raised under ideologies of their day, are often considered problematic in retrospect. Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill and many others are now under reassessment for their racism and other beliefs and acts.

Is it presentist to cancel them? Is it racist not to? Do their other accomplishments exonerate them?

In posing these questions, I am not implying that I have the answers. I wish I had the wisdom to provide insight into how to view those from the past who would not meet the sensibilities of the present.

Peter Smagorinsky

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Jimmy Carter, whose life is now being celebrated, is such a person. Carter ran for governor of Georgia as a segregationist in 1970, which was his only option for getting elected. He later abandoned those views as the “Overton window” shifted: the range of possibilities for a policy to be proposed and enacted in relation to the degree that the public will accept it.

But when the Overton window shifts, the older value systems may offend the sensibilities of those socialized to the new, who often condemn those who are out of step with their current state of enlightenment. Enter presentism.

I’ve struggled with how to view Abraham Lincoln, for instance. Lincoln, while presiding over the abolition of slavery, contributed to the genocide of Native people in the West, and like many abolitionists, was not an integrationist. Rather, he thought that civilized nations didn’t enslave people. But he preferred returning freed slaves to Africa to having them live next door.

One task of historians is to get behind myths and detail the actual past. I grew up learning about Honest Abe the Abolitionist. Historians have found him to be more complicated than the myths surrounding him. Does my ambivalence about Lincoln mean I am viewing him with a presentist lens? I think it does. Does it help me decide whether he should be canceled? No.

I’ll illustrate the dilemma with a current example. The James Webb telescope is one of the wonders of the galaxy, sending home extraordinary photos of deep space that even astronomers find breathtaking.

Its namesake isn’t doing so well, however. Webb was homophobic and ran NASA in such a way as to drive out LGBTQ+ personnel. He was part of the “lavender scare,” the purge of LGBTQ+ government workers in the 1940s and 1950s. Although homophobia is alive and well today, and is being written into law, Webb’s views and treatment of lesbian and gay people are causing concern about his name being attached to one of the greatest technological instruments ever made.

I am not here to defend Webb or add to the mounds of criticism that scientists and others are piling on the decision to honor him by naming the telescope after him. What I wonder is, how possible is it to have been born in North Carolina in 1906, like Webb, and not grow up homophobic?

Webb was born well before my own parents. Two generations later, I grew up in Virginia amid a climate of homophobia. I acknowledge that I adopted this prejudice in my childhood and youth, because there was no other opinion available to me. It was only in 1973, while I was in college, that the American Psychiatric Association stopped considering homosexuality to be a mental illness. This decision didn’t go viral in an era of pay phones and postage, and so the debilitating view of LGBTQ+ people barely budged. I was no better than the times that produced me.

I later changed my views as I had more experiences with ideas and people. When I admitted to a lesbian friend, who’s a couple of decades younger than I am, that I’d grown up homophobic, she said, “Me too!” Only after getting married to a man and then acknowledging her sexuality did she carry on in accordance with her lesbian identity.

I share this background because when I look at someone born in North Carolina in 1906, I am not surprised that he was homophobic. At the same time, he was a groundbreaking administrator in hiring Black scientists in the 1960s, in that sense defying the traditions in which he was raised. He was a complicated man, blessed with many abilities, surrounded by the values of the times in which he deployed them, at times working within them, at times challenging them.

I’m conflicted when it comes to Webb, Lincoln, and others who lived in the midst of less generous times, even as today’s times have not entirely left the beliefs that surrounded them behind. I’m not in charge of naming things, and if I were, I think I’d avoid naming them after people, who are flawed and contradictory. Yet their reputations endure, monuments or not. How should these legacies be viewed moving forward?

As complicated, I hope, and with some understanding that we ourselves live in the times that have forged our ideologies, and that some day will be viewed as problematic. We are not yet enlightened. And that gives us plenty to work on. Among those projects, I think, is understanding history better so as not to condemn it for not being the present.