Thomas Nast and the #NativismSyllabus

Over on Twitter, Michael Landis has started a new hashtag #NativismSyllabus. Go check it out, there’s some great stuff on there.

One of the first things that comes to my mind when I think about Nativism is, of course, Thomas Nast. I’m on year three now of doing a Nast unit in my Integrative Studies course, and I have some thoughts about it. For one thing, I can’t help but wonder if it would have gone any differently if we were doing the activity this week instead of a month ago. Perhaps my students would have been a bit more troubled by the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic artwork that they were seeing if they were looking at it with eyes freshly alert as a result of Trump’s latest anti-Muslim diatribes. The connections to the present might have felt more immediate.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For this exercise, I have the students debate whether or not Thomas Nast should be entered into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In the past, I’ve structured this as a question about how we should remember difficult people of the past (in the weeks surrounding the Nast debate, we’ll talk about Thomas Jefferson). What do we make of a person who could make art that celebrated Emancipation and defended Chinese immigration while making other art that vilified Catholicism and Irish immigrants? It tends to go surprisingly well. From never having heard of Nast, they often find themselves having very strong opinions, but not weighed down by the issues that come up when reevaluating someone they already think they know (like Jefferson). They tend to get very animated. One year, students on one side of the debate came in team colors! This is the exercise where students start actually learning each other’s names. I like it.

Last year, the debate took an interesting turn as my students began thinking about who visits a hall of fame: who’s the audience? In thinking about who should go in a historical hall of fame, that is, are they thinking about whom children should be told to look up to? Is this an adult audience? How much complexity and context can be introduced?

I was excited about this direction of questioning, and so as I planned the syllabus for this fall, I added a class trip. To think about halls of fame, we would go to visit one. And that is how I found myself planning a class trip to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. We had a great tour by the director of the center, Emily Fijol, who did a wonderful job of answering student questions about the nomination and selection process. Our big questions had to do with what they do about controversy. Before the visit, I had the class read Esther Katz’s reflections on the controversy surrounding Margaret Sanger’s entry into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame (due to charges of racism). So, they wanted to know: does Michigan deal with controversies? Yes. What does the Hall of Fame do in response to controversy?

This was the big question. And the answer was that they have never removed someone from the Hall of Fame due to later charges of inappropriateness due to racism or anything else. The women’s accomplishments, Fijol explained, stand.

Well, that proved to be a very important moment that solidified for most of my students the idea that you can absolutely separate someone’s (positive) accomplishments from their (negative) speech and actions. This is good, but as I responded to them in class as we were reflecting after the debate, I think we can probably come up with actions and speech that would, in fact, overshadow many accomplishments. If we’re learning anything this fall, it is that the time may have come to reconsider how we remember some of the figures we once thought untouchable. Sometimes, perhaps, we shouldn’t so neatly draw a line between “accomplishments” and all the other messy stuff.

That seems to be the central question of this in-class exercise for me: where do we draw that line? Perhaps the #NativismSyllabus will help me and my students think more about that next time around.



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