Recent student demands to rename and retract names of courses, academic programs and research centers, to include “triggers” in course syllabi, as well as to cancel speakers deemed offensive to specific university campus constituents have already received much attention in the media. Still we feel the need to register our response as well. This is much more serious than political correctness run amok, we believe that this threatens the academic enterprise.
There are many recent examples of this growing tidal wave of outrage. Students at the University of Ottawa canceled a yoga class because of concerns that yoga might be a “troublesome cultural appropriation” and that many cultures that practice yoga have experienced oppression and colonialism. The class might be rebranded as “mindful stretching.”
Woodrow Wilson has been censured at Princeton and elsewhere because of his treatment of African-Americans during his presidency and before. Thomas Jefferson, well-known and unapologetic slaveholder, is criticized at the University of Virginia, that he founded, and at the College of William and Mary, where he studied. No doubt, there will be demands that Jefferson be removed from the US nickel, where he has resided for many years. The Brown family, funders of Brown University, also had ties to the slave trade. Who knows if John Harvard has some skeletons in his closet?
This year’s Thanksgiving holiday presented yet another troublesome review of history. The Pilgrims were given something of a “take down” in a documentary on the Public Broadcasting System, for not actually being the heroic defenders of religious freedom as we were told. Does that mean that next Thanksgiving, Americans will be eating Kentucky Fried Chicken instead of turkey?
Additional controversies rage in the US relating to statues honoring racist Confederate Civil War leaders, such as John C. Calhoun and others, in the American South—on campuses and off.
This is not merely a North American problem. Student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa demanded the removal a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist who donated the land on which the university stands. Rhodes University, elsewhere in South Africa, may well face a similar dilemma soon.
There are, of course, no easy answers. As modern societies continue to come to terms with the darker aspects of their history, it is not surprising that controversies appear. The problems of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual behavior certainly deserve more attention. And universities are particularly well suited to examine these complex issues. That is only if we are capable of conceding complexity.
It is difficult to imagine that any instrumental figure from another time could withstand the judgment of later decades or (even) centuries. We are after all, in many ways, products of our time. And as we examine the life of Woodrow Wilson and others, there is much to be learned if we try to understand why the same man who achieved many important accomplishments in so many areas, committed acts that we find deplorable.
Another controversial American figure is Lyndon Johnson, despised by many for the Vietnam War and the many lies and atrocities attributed to him during that time. Yet it is important also to remember his leadership on civil rights, his endeavors to alleviate poverty on a national scale, and his improvements to infrastructure that have facilitated many of the modern achievements we enjoy today.
Perhaps universities should follow MIT’s lead and simply number all buildings but we are probably not well served by removing names and statues from campuses around the world. Rather we should leave these symbols in place and insure that their complex legacies are discussed on campus so that we might learn from the past rather than erase it.