Defining Ideas

When College Radicals Obliterate History

Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Image credit: 
Library of Congress

Will the new semester on college campuses be as crazy as the one that just ended? It’s only January and already the president of Ithaca College has announced his resignation in the face of student protests. The largest college in Oregon, Portland Community College, has recently declared April “Whiteness History Month,” not to celebrate white people, of course, but to study whiteness as a social construct. Some have called it “white shaming.”

But of all the protests that have swept across campuses in recent months, the ones that are especially troubling are those that seek to plant a kind of ‘malware’ that distorts and even erases history. It appeared most visibly at Princeton University, with calls to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of International and Public Affairs, as well as a mural of Wilson from the campus over his “racist legacy.” No matter that Wilson was an important president in Princeton’s development, or a widely acknowledged progressive president of the United States. His legacy should no longer be remembered or celebrated at Princeton because of his efforts to re-segregate the civil service.

Similar malware has been introduced at Harvard Law School where, following student protests, Dean Martha Minow has formed a committee to deliberate whether the school should do away with or revise its seal that includes a family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., the 18th century slave-owning benefactor of the school. Protestors at Yale say that Calhoun College must be renamed and the term “master,” long used to designate the head of its residential colleges, be eliminated. At Amherst, responding to student protests, the faculty voted to eliminate mascot Lord Jeff for his misdeeds to Native Americans 200-plus years ago.

Ironically, this chapter of student protests contrasts with the 1960s free speech movement, in that this is a kind of non-free-speech movement. Like George Carlin’s popular “seven dirty words” you couldn’t say on television of the early 1970s, students and faculty are busy deciding which vulgar historical figures can no longer be represented on campus.

Watch out, because George Washington owned slaves and liberal hero Franklin D. Roosevelt did put over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. And who urged Roosevelt to pursue the internment? Earl Warren, who as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court later wrote Brown v. the Board of Education. Must we erase all that too? Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as we read in Romans 3:23, there will be few historical figures who are safe to celebrate on campus once the malware spreads. Indeed, comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock will not play campuses now because of all the sensitivity and political correctness.

This malware—which seeks to attack, discredit and/or erase history—is best described as “presentism,” the idea that we should apply the modern world’s avowedly superior moral sensibilities to judge people and practices of the past. After all, we are the first people to be able to perceive the truth about things, are we not, and we cannot tolerate error. Imperfections from the past are not to be understood or learned from, but deleted. People with lives of accomplishment are to be judged and dismissed on the basis of the things they got wrong. Historical context is no defense when we are judging and hanging people by the superior moral standards of modernity.

Presentism seems especially pernicious in halls of learning where the goal should be to learn from history, not judge it. Ours is not the first generation to cultivate this virus. In an earlier time, British historian Herbert Butterfield called out a similar problem in The Whig Interpretation of History (1951). This interpretation, according to Butterfield, “studies the past with reference to the present,” thereby creating a major obstruction to understanding and learning. It is a form of “abridgement”—don’t you love those polite English terms?—in which history is distilled to focus only on what is still relevant today. And this abridgement is based on “selection,” choosing what to take in and what to ignore.

Worse, Butterfield says, the Whig interpretation is eager to make judgments on history, to act as judge and jury, not as learner or expert witness. So apparently we have a bunch of nouveau-Whigs on our campuses, busy abridging, distilling, selecting and judging history rather than learning from it.

But we could roll the calendar back even further to the French Revolution in search of an analog to the presentism virus. That revolution sought to obliterate the past, not simply by removing names but by wiping out the past and starting over. This was accomplished not as an academic exercise but by violent revolution. What was conceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a romantic utopian project, ended up in violence on the streets. Unfortunately, this might also be a precedent for this vociferous generation of college students.

A further irony is that the objects of student presentism are frequently their own liberal intellectual ancestors, if only they were sufficiently open-minded and educated to see that. The Princeton attacks are on Woodrow Wilson, an intellectual leader of the progressive movement. He advocated the war to end all wars, led a ban on child labor, received the Nobel Peace Prize and was an advocate for the League of Nations. But all of this is trumped by his firing of a dozen black supervisors in the federal government. Or Thomas Jefferson, who inherited and owned slaves, but also led Virginia to the first American policy against importing slaves and favored policies of gradual emancipation.

But in the abridged and selective history of today’s protestors, there is no room for nuance, or imperfection, or evolution of views over time. There is only right or wrong, based on the standards of modernity, not of the earlier time in which these people lived.

What are we to do about presentism? Having detected the malware, how does one remove it? For starters, one does not welcome it. Barely raising concerns about presentism and history, faculty have voted to give in and administrators have resigned. As a consequence, there is little dialogue or learning taking place in this teachable moment; instead, there is a caving in, and a doubling down on the funding for politically correct programs.

More fruitful would be attempts to synthesize and learn from the questions presentism raises. One promising example might be the response of University of Texas president Gregory Fenves, who chose to relocate the offending statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the center of campus to a museum, where it could be placed in historic context, rather than removed entirely. Indeed, college campuses should not be places of intolerance, but rather of openness and learning. Students must be prepared to hear lectures and have experiences that stretch them, even making them uncomfortable. It’s part of the free and open environment of learning.

Another constructive approach would be to engage the students in dialogue about how we deal with public figures who are fallible and have warts. Many leaders with great capacity for good also demonstrated large downsides. Among 20th century presidents, ask Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton or, yes, Woodrow Wilson about this. Does this mean we are unable to recognize or even commemorate their accomplishments? Is perfection the new and intolerant standard we seek? This cannot be the way to prepare students to go into the cold, cruel world.

Is it really moving America in the right direction for our campuses to teach that there are no heroes left, only villains waiting to be unmasked? This would be an unfortunate “Zinnification” of American history, from the historian Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States is a textbook used widely in high schools and colleges. Zinn teaches that our traditional American heroes are myths or, worse, frauds. Starting with Columbus, who was not a discoverer but, according to Zinn, an “executioner,” right on through the founders who sought to protect wealth and property, and the many presidents who started wars for economic reasons, our history is an ugly one, full of heels, not heroes.

 In the computer world, malware is a virus that ultimately, seeks to damage and take control over the system itself. That is precisely what we are dealing with here: a virus on campus that seeks to undermine and erase American history and lead it leftward—and not just a progressive left but a revolutionary one. The sad outcome of presentism is turning American history into an ugly tableau, making America unlovable for future generations.