Preserve Unpleasant History or Eradicate It?

By Rs-nourse (Own work) [<a href="">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

Harvard Law School’s former shield
Courtesy of RS-Nourse

Princeton University and Harvard Law School have asked very similar questions and reached opposite conclusions: how should we address our history, the victories and defeats?

Princeton, where Woodrow Wilson served on the faculty and was university president before his election as President of the United States, displays his name prominently. There is a Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs as well as a Wilson dormitory.

But it has recently become known that Wilson harbored racist feelings and appears to have acted on them, keeping blacks out of the University and later out of some government offices during his presidency. A movement developed on the campus to eradicate the Wilson name.

Harvard Law School has had a shield adopted in 1936 with symbols including a sheaf of wheat. This seemingly innocent drawing turns out to honor Isaac Royall, an 18th-century landowner who donated land to establish the first law professorship at Harvard. Royall, it has been discovered, was a slaveholder.

Students and faculty at both institutions have now protested the symbols, and both universities have ruled: Princeton will retain Wilson, while Harvard will remove the wheat sheaf from its symbols. Which is the correct route, to preserve history or relieve newly empowered hard feelings?

Our community preserves symbols of its successes and failures forever. Hanukkah and Purim recall battles won or lost, Tisha b’Av marks the destruction of Solomon’s Temple 2500 years ago. Preserving the Holocaust might be our equivalent to the challenges at the two universities. We oppose any representation of the swastika in public, in the belief that it implies approval of Hitler’s regime. At the same time we heap opprobrium on Holocaust deniers. We seek to preserve the memory of the Holocaust out of concern that it could recur, somewhere at some time.

Isaac Royall and Woodrow Wilson were great men of their times, however imperfect as measured today. Very few people outside of Harvard are likely to know what the sheaf of wheat represents. The dormitory and the School of International Affairs at Princeton are not symbols of slavery by any reasonable measure. In the battles over these symbols, the combatants are measuring each other’s commitment to the principle of freedom as they (differently) perceive that principle.

At Harvard, expunging a tie to a figure in history is considered acceptable. Nobody suggests that Harvard find Royall’s heirs and return the value of his gift. The Law School simply disowned the offending history.

Princeton will keep the symbols but is has created an exhibit of Wilson’s achievements and also his flaws, presenting the policies and practices he followed as university president and then as the nation’s leader. Princeton faces the more difficult situation, dealing with a figure of modern history whose strengths and weaknesses are fair subjects of study by scholars inside and outside the institution. Yet Princeton has chosen the path of intellectual honesty. It will mark the flaws in Wilson’s life and character but not seek to expunge his name or the favorable aspects of his legacy.

So what is most important to our community: suppression of symbols that deliver a mixed message, or do we prefer the preservation of history with its many human flaws?


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