The Reckoning

How should college campuses come to terms with their problematic history?

April 26, 2021

This society is in the midst of a profound reckoning with its problematic past -- and colleges and universities, like museums, stand at the forefront of the challenge this reckoning poses.

Activist students and faculty quite rightly insist that their campuses take account of past transgressions, repay long-overdue debts and fulfill outstanding moral obligations.

Most of our most prestigious colleges and universities have skeletons in their closets. Even those that did not benefit directly or indirectly from slavery advanced pseudoscientific ideas involving eugenics or imposed discriminatory admissions policies.

As a historian, I find the challenges that this reckoning presents excruciatingly difficult.

On the one hand, I would be the last to dismiss this reckoning as mere virtue signaling.

Campus traditions or songs with an unsavory past, buildings with names that celebrate scoundrels and villains, and past realities that have been neglected, ignored, marginalized and distorted are more than merely symbolic.

Our campuses’ physical environment can inflict pain and even trauma. A campus’s racial geography can serve as a tangible, everyday reminder of past wrongs. An inclusive institution needs to be acutely attentive to the ways its campus is experienced by all its stakeholders -- and how its reputation can discourage diverse students from applying for admissions or feeling a sense of connection and belonging.

On the other hand, I also share Edmund Burke’s belief that we should be cautious and thoughtful when we tamper with the past.

After all, the past is inevitably a mixed bag, with good often coming from the bad and the bad from those with good intentions.

Princeton’s reckoning with Woodrow Wilson’s legacy underscores the difficulties that campuses face. As Adekeye Adebajo has written with particular insight, Wilson is both a man with a complex record -- which pits his reformist legislative achievements, Nobel Peace Prize and efforts to end some of Princeton’s most abhorrent traditions against his advocacy of racial segregation, his role in resegregating the federal civil service and his interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean -- and a symbol, whose very name is synonymous with liberal internationalism, collective security, universal self-determination and morality in foreign affairs.

We do need to reassess our supposed heroes. Oscar Wilde’s quip that the only debt we owe the past is to rewrite it strikes me as right on the mark.

Just as we are the beneficiaries of past achievements, we bear a burden of responsibility for past misdeeds.

U.S. society has long had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the past.

Think of the inscription on the Great Seal of the United States: Novus Ordo Seclorum -- a new order for the ages. Or Thomas Paine’s claim that we have the power to begin the world anew. Or Thomas Jefferson’s insistence that the earth belongs to the living.

“History,” wrote James Joyce, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And certainly, many of the present’s most pressing and profound problems are rooted in an imperial, expansionist, exploitative past.

I share the view that the most distressing symbols need to be taken down and offensive names erased and replaced. But I also worry that a much-needed, long-overdue effort to revise our history is in fact part of a broader, worrisome development: an undue fixation on the present that disconnects us not only from the past but the future.

The declining birth rate certainly reflects the cost of rearing children, the undue burdens placed on mothers and heightened awareness of the risks that accompany parenthood. But it also signals a generational break and a loss of confidence in the future.

Similarly, the flight from marriage is no doubt partly a consequence of the high divorce rate, a sense that marriage is a relic of a patriarchal society and a recognition that lifelong relationships are extremely difficult to sustain. But it also betokens a loss of confidence in the possibility of ties extending across generations.

Cremation makes sense on cost and environmental grounds. But it’s hard not to see it, too, as expressing doubt that succeeding generations need tangible ties to their ancestors.

There are certainly countertendencies, evident in booming interest in genealogy and DNA testing. And especially in the efforts of climate change activists to preserve the environment for future generations.

But attendance at history museums and historic sites was in free fall even before the pandemic, another sign of declining sense of connection with the past.

Half a century ago, the social psychologist Kenneth Keniston argued that the disaffection and alienation rife in American society reflected both a sense of disconnection with the past and the erosion of a utopian vision -- that is, a shared conception of a meaningful future.

Since he wrote, the situation has certainly intensified, evident in the pejorative depiction of succeeding generations. In popular discourse, we’ve witnessed the Me society of the 1970s giving way to Gen X’s cynical, disconnected slackers and the millennials’ disaffiliation with organized religion and withdrawal from marriage, culminating in today’s entitled, demanding Karens.

The weight of history is not a burden that can simply be cast aside or easily repudiated. It needs to be recognized, not hidden away or simply dismissed as inconsistent with our present-day values.

Recompense needs to take tangible forms -- for example, much more aggressive recruitment, reconsidered admissions and financial aid policies, and far more systematic efforts at community service and educational outreach.

But it should also take a historical form. Even as we remove offensive symbols, campuses need to render the ugly side of their history visible. Just as campuses have art museums and archives, there should be a space where faculty, students, alumni and others can engage with our campus’s history in its full complexity.

Let’s create campus sites for precisely the kinds of reflection, contemplation and, yes, reckoning with the complex and often ugly side of our institutional past.

We might take inspiration from the Adinkra symbol of a bird that flies forward while looking backward. We, too, must look back if we are to move forward.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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