The idea of tearing down statues, such as that of Edward Colston in Bristol, is an exciting one, despite your position on such actions. The debate over the removal of statues and renaming of monuments in across the UK has incited a spirited debate as to whether or not it’s the right thing to do, but statues are a symptom, and more attention is needed to address the cause. We are not taught enough about our nation’s history.
Take Robert Baden-Powell as an example. Every person who was a member of the Scouts will have heard his name. He was the founder of the organization. He cleverly found a way to teach the young people of his day skills that they schools did not provide. That’s about as much as I was ever told by my Scout Leaders. For some reason they don’t tell us about his part in the colonial atrocities of the British Empire, or his alleged Nazi sympathies. Now, it could be argued that such aspects of his life were irrelevant in his founding of the Scouts. But when you tell children this kind of story, it shapes how they will instinctively view such historical figures in later life. Generations of Scouts grow up learning about all the good that Baden-Powell did, with no idea of his horrific views on other races. In my case, this meant years revering a man who would likely have seen my half-Chinese self, as an abomination.
It’s not difficult to see how people would believe that the bad outweighs the good, when the good was the only thing they were taught when they were growing up. Churchill is another example. I am by no means in favour of pulling down his statue in the same manner as Colston. However, it makes me uncomfortable how quickly people will dismiss valid concerns about his character simply because he led us through the Second World war. Even I have difficulty understanding my feelings about the former Prime Minister. When I was small, he was a hero. Now I’m an adult, I’m learning what kind of man he really was. He viewed other nations and races as inferior to the British, he let Indians starve in masses and he believed that genocide of native peoples was a good thing.
The system is simple, first you are introduced to the person. This is usually in school, where you learn about their adventures and triumphs. You’re raised to admire them as a British national hero. It seems only natural that they have statues dedicated to them. When you eventually learn more, your common morality and decency start to conflict with your childhood admiration.
How can we rationally assess the appropriateness of a statue if we have grown up hearing of their great acts, and only discover the cruel ones after impressions have been formed. This is the reason that so many people believe the British Empire was a good thing. Even, once it’s established that an idea or a person was bad, then monuments to them become about ‘reminding us of our history’. We’re told that if we remove these reminders, then we’ll forget what they did. Which is why a painting of Hitler still hangs in the German Chancellor’s office, right? Oh wait...
Statues of controversial figures are defended passionately by ‘patriots’ when there are so many Britons who deserve the implicit honour of a statue. Alan Turing, Ignatius Sancho, the girls who gate-crashed the first Scout conference to protest how they weren’t allowed to join. Statues are more than just statues; they create an impression of greatness. We often, quite literally, look up to these monuments. To pretend that they teach us history is disingenuous. If you want to teach people history, so that they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, you have to teach them the mistakes of the past. The history curriculum needs to encompass the atrocities of colonialism. When we learn about historical British figures, we need to actually learn about them, warts and all.
Whether the statues stay or go, we need to have a mature and informed debate about it. We cannot do that while we continue being programmed to like them in classrooms. They cannot be allowed to remain unchallenged purely because of the population’s combined ignorance and deliberate obliviousness of their evil sides. Colonial history needs to be added to the curriculum. We need to stop coddling the minds of our children so that they may remain naively proud of their nation. There are a great many reasons to be proud of our dear nation, but we cannot remain unaware of its flaws. Just as there are great reasons that the Churchill statue should remain, but there are equally valid reasons it should not. Statues can teach us a great deal. The older statues in Greek museums tell how they were influenced by the Egyptians, but they are presented with context. People are encouraged to read the plaques or take a tour.
The statues at the centre of this issue are not in museums. They are placed in full public view, where thousands might walk in their shadow every day. Where children will see and assume greatness in flawed figures. Statues are not history lessons when they’re in public. They are shrines, and we can find better people to worship.
David Lam is 21 and from Carrickfergus. He is studying Law at Dundee University and wants to get involved in local community activism after he graduates.