Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Dealing with embarrassing history on campus

The past year has seen major protests on university campuses in several different countries about the statues, buildings, mascots, and programs that bear the names of people with dubious histories, particularly those connected to racism, slavery, or colonialism. Examples include the Rhodes must fall campaign which succeeded in the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes at University of Cape Town, and spread to Oxford.  A student campaign at Princeton to rename a School and College, honouring Woodrow Wilson, a former President of the University and of the USA, was supported by a New York Times editorial. It documents the racist legacy of Wilson and how he segregrated the Federal government. I spent 4 years at Princeton and also read a short biography of him, yet I had never heard any of this before. He was just a Princeton icon. The only part of his legacy that seemed controversial was the location of the Graduate College.

What should universities do about these embarrassing legacies?

Protesters say that all the memorials should be removed. The offenders should not be honoured or celebrated in any way. The memorials are deeply offensive and particularly hurtful to minorities.

Traditionalists may acknowledge the past failings of these historical figures by todays standards but say you can't erase history and we do need to acknowledge that these people weren't all bad but did do some good.

I am somewhere in the middle. I really think we do need to acknowledge history. People should not forget the past and the people who shaped it, for better or for worse. I fully understand why people in the former Soviet Union tore down the massive statues of Lenin and Stalin.

On the other hand, I think something has been lost. Lest we forget. We need to remember past oppression so it is not repeated.

I think that some of these monuments should remain and be used for educational purposes. This can be done by adding displays giving the history of the person, including their failings. One could also install a counter statue: e.g. next to Rhodes, one of Nelson Mandela. Perhaps Wilson College  which features uplifting quotations from Wilson could be renamed Wilson-Obama college and feature quotations from Michelle Obama (who is a Princeton alumnus) or her husband. The contrast between Wilson and Barack Obama is just amazing. How times have changed! Students need to know that.

Last year I visited the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, a "great" monument to colonialism, and I found the displays gently (but perhaps too subtly) brought out the relevant issues. 

I was surprised that I had not heard of others making such proposals but then I saw a nice article in The EconomistRecast in stone:  A middle way between complacency and destruction. It describes a museum in the southern USA that has such an approach and stresses that these statues should be viewed as "artefacts not monuments".


  1. "It documents the racist legacy of Wilson and how he de-segregrated the Federal government"...I think you mean "segregated" not "de-segregated".

  2. One question that fascinates me is "History tells us that some things that seem right and proper today will be seen as abominations by future generations -- what are those things?"

  3. Good post, relevant subject.

    My 2 cents:

    I like your idea of adding info (a plaque) detailing the imperfections or outright bad things of the person related to the statue/display.

    I don't like adding other statues; it is easily going to result in a statue-race (arms race), with Wilson-Obama- native Americans - Hispanics - Asian and what else. There will always be people that feel their point of view is not recognized and should get statue too. Statue forests don't really allow the aesthetical art-value (?) to come out, which is something that should be considered too with public displays.

    If a person did something worth remembering, he may deserve a statue. If that person also had his/her flaws, point them out, even if they are only recognized at a later date. This does not rewrite history (erasing the contributions of the person because there are some flaws), but adds nuance - just like historian academics (ought to) do.

    Adding new insight facilitates a balanced view, and discussion. After all the sharpening of ideas through nuances should be the culture on an academic campus.

    Don't contrast it with statues of opposites; that facilitates polarization.

    Indeed this is still a hot button issue in the South of the US, with confederate flags etc. A balanced (instead of lopsided black and white, present or absent) approach may satisfy, and educate, more people.

    As a final example, the Peter Debye Institute (Utrecht, The Netherlands) had an episode where suspected nazi-relations of Debye made them (almost) remove the name of Debye.
    Turns out they kept is, see