I just finished reading an article in the Wall Street Journal by Roger Kimball. Yes, it was in yesterday’s Journal (August 8), so I am a little behind. But what he says certainly is up to date (although please don’t take this blog as a sign of agreement with the ultimate point of his essay).
Kimball, the editor and publisher of the New Criterion, addresses the current campus fervor into renaming buildings, programs and legacies on college campuses to, as he says, “accommodate modern sensitivities.” One of the most famous cases is Amherst College’s decision to banish Lord Jeffrey Amherst as its mascot because he gave blankets infested with small pox to Native Americans. For that matter, why not drop the name of the college in its entirety – and change the name of the town in which it resides?
That’s kind of one of the themes of Kimball’s essay, although in his case, the school that he calls out is Yale University, which has been grappling with the decision as to whether to rename the residential college that is named for John C. Calhoun, a Southern supporter of slavery. According to Kimball, Elihu Yale was a figure to be even more vilified for his association with the slave trade.
Kimball’s comments about Amherst and Yale got me to thinking, as I have read about the furor at Princeton over Woodrow Wilson in addition to Amherst’s decision about Lord Jeff. I wonder if it’s really the right thing to topple all of these American “institutions.” To me, it’s kind of like sweeping the dust under the rug. I would rather have the dust in full view so that it can be discovered and dealt with.
Here’s what I propose for American colleges and universities: That they not sweep the dust under the rug but that they see an opportunity for teaching. Teaching about human flaws, about the good and the bad that men do (and women – please don’t sweep women under the rug), about putting things in historical perspective. To that end, I propose that American universities develop a required class for first year students in which they delve into these issues – into the things that particularly resonate on their campuses. Shouldn’t students understand the history of the institutions to which they have chosen to attend and to which many will profess undying loyalty through the rest of their lives? I would like to see Amherst institute a class based on Lord Jeff, Yale address the study of both Calhoun and Yale, Princeton delve into Woodrow Wilson. And they don’t have to pick on the bad guys or the bad things that people did, but also look at the good guys, like William Penn and why the University of Pennsylvania carries his name. It’s been a long time since I, a native Pennsylvanian, have studied this man who, like the rest of us, had flaws and whom some see as imperialistic in his own way.
It’s a myth that all men – and women – are either good or bad (although some, like Adolf Hitler, in my mind are all bad). But wouldn’t it give college students a nice perspective to learn that lesson while participating in a reasoned and reasonable dialogue with each other and with the institutions to which they ally?