Painting a False Picture of the Past

In reading “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble,” I was struck by this quote in particular: “Yet if Woodrow Wilson College simply becomes Bloomberg College, Princeton will have lost an opportunity to talk about what kind of college it wishes to be.” This sentiment seems further reflected in an article I found linked in one of the comments on the site, which I think adds an interesting perspective to the debate (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/names-in-the-ivy-league).

When colleges rechristen buildings named for those who held racist beliefs, they are in a sense sugar-coating the past. How would new names be chosen for these buildings? A college may be able to identify a figure innocuous enough so as not to offend anyone; however, this would be projecting a false version of history. It would, albeit unintentionally, be denying the fact that some of the most influential figures in the development of the college believed people of different races were not entitled to the same treatment as those of their own. Consciously or unconsciously, this worldview undoubtedly affected how figures such as Woodrow Wilson shaped and influenced the schools in which they were invested. We have discussed the tendency of some historical exhibits to avoid the controversial aspects of their subject matter, and it is worth acknowledging that this avoidance is not always performed by those who stand to benefit from believing the injustices never happened. Eradicating the evidence of unpleasant histories because they make us feel hurt and outraged is just as much an act of avoidance as pretending they do not exist.

Of course we should not ignore that certain prominent figures were racist, precisely because they were so prominent and their influence was and is felt so strongly. At the same time, human beings are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil; one has to acknowledge that the same individuals who nursed such prejudices also made important and notable contributions to their schools. Rechristening buildings with the names of those who are less controversial and/or were not as instrumental in the development of a college denies enormous parts of that college’s history. It dismisses significant steps made in the development of the school, while simultaneously pretending that this development was not tainted by the racist ideas of the time. College buildings are not named indiscriminately. The names of specific people were selected for specific purposes, and these selections and the reasons behind them shed light on the climate in which they were chosen. The controversies surrounding these names should be revealed and will rightfully cause outrage; at the same time, letting this outrage lead to the destruction of evidence will only cause more facets of history to be swept under the rug.

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