November 20, 2015
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James Livingston has a confusing piece, “Don’t Repress the Past,” about efforts to rename colleges currently named after Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun. Livingston starts the piece noting that many people we laud, from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, were racists by the standards of our time, and that he teaches social theory, which means engaging with ugly characters with ugly ideas. “What goes missing from current debates about, say, Wilson,” Livingston writes, “is the humility of retrospect — the capacity to recognize the possible limits of your ideas against the obvious failings of those who didn’t have the benefit of your education.”
I find this argument baffling. I teach history, which means teaching about lots of unpleasant figures. Every discipline that I can think of will necessarily involve discussing and interpreting a whole host of truly terrible people and their ideas. You have to do this – I think it’s important to expose students to noxious or detestable ideas, if for no other reason than that they understand that such ideas exist in the world and regrettably have power.
I don’t understand what this has to do with college, buildings, or monuments named after bad people, though. Livingston describes it as “ways of forgetting the past — repressing and mutilating it rather than learning from it, or, as the shrinks would say, working through it.” A similar line of argument appeared during debates about the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments, and it was as wrong-headed then as it is here. You can teach and know history without glorifying it. And before defenders of this approach argue that there are ways to keep the names but provide historical context – with plaques or additional monuments or whatever – note that Livingston (who expressly notes that we need to keep such monuments so that “we acknowledge that we ourselves are the barbarians”) falls into the trap, describes Woodrow Wilson’s odious foreign policy as “a vast improvement on the colonial precedent. It advocated national sovereignty and economic development rather than conquest and exploitation.” We need to keep Wilson’s name around to remind us that, awful as he was, he wasn’t as bad as King Leopold? Count me out.
To get all the way ad absurdum, you can teach about Adolf Hitler without naming a building after him. I will in fact suggest that if there are any buildings named after Hitler in the United States today, we should rename them. Which, right, nobody is talking about naming a building after Hitler. But there’s clearly a line somewhere. Hitler was a racist. Lincoln was a racist. It’s untenable to say that this means we either have to have monuments to both men or to neither.