Recently, the Yale Corporation renamed one of its residential colleges for computer scientist Grace Hopper, dropping the name of John C. Calhoun, whose political philosophy included a defense of slavery.
The decision came after months of campus protest over honoring Calhoun whose beliefs many find abhorrent. Tampering with the historical record, however has its dangerous side.
Similar demands for renaming buildings honoring historical figures have been made at other institutions including Princeton University, where students took issue with the use of President Woodrow Wilson’s name because he did not share modern sentiments on race and supported certain segregationist practices.
History is no doubt filled with unpleasant happenings. To demand, however, that events we find distasteful be removed from our consciousness is not only counterproductive but invites the normalization of whitewashing and selectively engaging with history.
Prior to Yale’s announcement, the policy of the university recognized the importance of facing history rather than sweeping it under the carpet when it is difficult to bear. To this effect, university President Peter Salovey said, “Through teaching and learning about the most troubling aspects of our past, our community will be better prepared to challenge their legacies.”
If this precedent of renaming is to continue, we might demand that President Bill Clinton’s name be removed from a plaque outside of the Yale post office because his administration failed to intervene during the genocide in Rwanda.
People of Irish heritage might insist that the Seychelles rename its capital, Victoria, because its namesake queen reigned over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the Irish famine, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1million people and was caused, in large part, by British grain import practices.
Perhaps Washington, D.C., ought to be renamed because George Washington kept slaves who were not freed until after his death.
Yale’s recent decision is not the first instance of attempting to modify history. The practice was a preferred means of state control over collective memory in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin was known to order the removal of political opponents from official records when they fell out of favor. For example, Stalin notably ordered the likeness of commissioner Nikolai Yezhov be blotted out of a photograph following his execution in 1940.
Events such as these served as inspiration for aspects of the nightmarish world conjured by George Orwell in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In Orwell’s imaginary state, there is an agency called the Ministry of Truth, which revises events in history to fit with the narrative preferred by the party in power. The protagonist of the book, Winston Smith, is an employee at the Ministry of Truth, and he comes to understand with growing horror how the government edits old newspapers and publications to convince citizens that certain events never took place. The activities of the Ministry of Truth created a society in which it became impossible to decipher the government narrative from what had actually taken place.
As important as Orwell’s point is, perhaps the most pressing concern today is that we may begin to view history only through the lens of those currently living. There is much to learn from observing the differences between the past and present; as the British author L. P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.”
Should renaming become a part of life, we, as a society, are in danger of losing track of where we’ve been and learning from the difficulties of the past. Refusing to engage with unpleasant aspects of history does nothing to aid our appreciation of the ways of life, shortcomings and beliefs of those who came before us. History, by definition, is not just a reflection of what we happen to believe at the present. Rather, it tells the story of how our views and values have evolved, often for the better.
Erich J. Prince, 22, of Philadelphia is a senior majoring in political science at Yale. He lives in Davenport College. This article appeared originally in the February 15, 2017 edition of the Hartford Courant.DONATE
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