Maya Angelou once said that “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
It’s a quote Dartmouth College student Jack Hutensky calls upon in an op-ed in the Dartmouth Review to point out the many flaws in Yale University’s recent decision to rename Calhoun College.
The college was named after Yale alum John C. Calhoun, “who graduated from Yale in 1804, went on to serve as a member of the House of Representatives, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Vice President, and, most famously, as an outspoken U.S. Senator from South Carolina.”
While he was an advocate for slavery, he was much more than that — and to strip the college of his namesake is a mistake, Hutensky argues:
The cited reason for whitewashing Calhoun’s name from his residential college is his support for the institution of slavery. In the words of Yale’s President Salovey, support for slavery “fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.” We should hope so.
That being said, it is ridiculous to hold Calhoun to the same standard that we hold ourselves to today. He was a nineteenth century Southerner, who represented slaveholding constituents in the Senate. Unlike us, he did not have the benefit of 150 years of scholarship, discussion, progress and reflection on race relations. In other words, he does not have the benefit of hindsight. This sort of moral absolutism that supposes that we are enlightened, omniscient, and able to judge the actions of our ancestors without understanding their perspectives and limitations is dangerous. In doing so, we build up a collective hubris that threatens other points of view and prevents frank conversation about tough topics. …
Another serious side effect of this movement to cleanse our institutions of higher education from unsightly reminders of the past is its implications for our understanding of history. Though it has become clichéd, the notion that history repeats itself and acts in cycles is nonetheless true. When we decide to remove symbols of our past from our daily lives, they are relegated to history books and esoteric conversation. The name Calhoun College forces members of the Yale community, as well as others who encounter the college to ask, “Who was John C. Calhoun?” It forces people to think critically about our history. Now that it has been renamed Hopper College future generations will instead ask who Hopper was. While Grace Murray Hopper was a remarkable woman and a pioneer in the worlds of computing, math and the military, her legacy does not raise the same questions that Calhoun’s does. She does not force us to wrestle with our demons. Instead she allows us to view our past through rose-tinted lenses. While it might be easier, and more pleasurable, to think about all of our Grace Hoppers, if we fail to engage with our John Calhouns, they return.
Proponents of this “cultural reeducation” will argue that we are not erasing our past, just moving it to places that are more convenient or sensitive. At Yale, for instance, Salovey assured the world that “we must be vigilant not to erase the past,” promising that “we will not remove symbols of Calhoun from elsewhere on our campus,” and provisions for acknowledging Calhoun’s presence at Yale. I argue that this still misses the mark. Why? In understanding the story of slavery, and in fact many of our past mistakes, we have to understand those who perpetrated them. We have to understand that the proponents of slavery included reasoned, highly educated, and respected leaders of the time: the types of men who had and still have their names on buildings and their likenesses carved into statues in public spaces. We have to understand that some of the most visionary molders of opinion in different eras were not all great by today’s standards (41 out 56 the signatories of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, by some estimates). When we tear down these reminders of our past and scrapbook them into museum exhibits, tiny bronze plaques, and sections of history books—where we can ignore them on a daily basis—we lose sight of the importance and the popularity that they held in their time.
In short, the loss of Calhoun College is not a loss because of who John C. Calhoun was. It is a loss because of the trend it represents. As we remove our past inequities from the public eye and the public discourse, we lose sight of them and risk repeating our mistakes. … To truly face our history with courage, we must retain our symbols – the good with the bad.