Erasing the Past Will Not Improve the Future

(Editor’s note: Part I of this two part-series described how higher education’s social justice agenda set the stage for this fall’s campus unrest and university leaders’ submission to student activists. Today’s article analyzes an especially troubling aspect of these developments: namely, attempts to sanitize the past via the removal of campus statues, monuments, and artifacts related to historical figures with legacies presumed to be racist.)

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, along with the massacre of nine black churchgoers last summer in Charleston, South Carolina, created racial hysteria and gave rise to an anti-intellectual movement that has now extended to American campuses. Its promoters want to purge society—and our universities—of historical relics and symbols that they say glorify white supremacy and perpetuate racism.

Ridding campuses of such controversial monuments may satisfy the emotionalism of these politically correct times, but it also will provide a false sense of closure to a complex chapter in our country’s history. As the philosopher and poet George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Brutish attacks on dissenting views and intimidation tactics coming from some of today’s campus activists reinforce that maxim; if all that changes is the direction of racial injustice, what is actually gained? 

The history of race relations in America, particularly in the South, is grim. Slavery, Ku Klux Klan terrorism, and the Jim Crow era, for example, were instances of systemic injustice with tragic lingering effects. But viewed in a different light, that history underscores our social progress and the factors that led to it.

Take higher education. Once reserved for wealthy white males, it’s now open to all qualified males and females from all income brackets. Meritocracy thrives where once it did not. This is not to say that all is well in terms of race relations on campus. But it is hard to take seriously middle- and upper-middle class students, attending the best colleges in the world, who claim that statues are oppressing them.

Over the summer, according to Inside Higher Ed, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin, Winthrop University, and Clemson University vandalized statues and paintings “linked to racist figures or ideas from the Confederate or Jim Crow days of the South.” Officials at UT-Austin eventually removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

In October and November, students from the College of William and Mary and the University of Missouri placed sticky notes with labels such as “rapist” and “racist” on statues of Thomas Jefferson and called for their removal. “Removing Jefferson’s statue alone will not eliminate the racial problems we face in America today, but it will help cure the emotional and psychological strain of history,” said the Missouri student who organized a petition to remove the statue.

At Princeton, protesters demanded that school officials “acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” the 28th U.S. President and former president of the university. University leaders have agreed to consider removing Wilson’s mural from a campus dining hall.

In addition to seeking the removal of certain statues and paintings, some student groups are calling for campus buildings named after racist historical figures to be renamed. Groups at UNC-Chapel Hill and Georgetown University, for instance, have already succeeded in this regard.

Criticizing these trends in an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, history professor James Livingston raises an important “slippery slope” argument:

Do we exclude writers from the theoretical canon on the grounds that they were, by our standards, racists and misogynists? Where do we forage in our history if, on those grounds, we exclude Hesiod, Aristotle, Saul of Tarsus, Augustine, Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Voltaire, and those arrogant Germans I’ve mentioned? The intellectual commons looks pretty barren if we’re fenced off from all those ideas.

Indeed, if history itself can be put on trial for possessing unsavory, “offensive” elements such as racism and bigotry, why not art, too? At the State University of New York at Buffalo, a black graduate student’s art project, which entailed posting “White Only” and “Black Only” signs across campus, was heavily criticized by black students, prompting the administration to “[encourage] discussions…about negotiating the boundaries of freedom of expression.”

At the University of Kentucky, the president recently decided to shroud “a campus mural from 1934 that shows scenes from state history, including black workers in a tobacco field and a Native American with a tomahawk.” That decision was made after two dozen black students complained. Given this atmosphere of campus intolerance, it’s no wonder that top comedians are avoiding college venues. When everyone’s offended and everyone’s being microaggressed against, the chilling of expression—artistic or otherwise—is inevitable.

As Ben Shapiro wrote in a June 2015 op-ed on Breitbart, “Offensiveness, justified or not, justifies the sledgehammer. In this respect, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the terrorists of ISIS jackhammering ancient idols in Iraq or the Taliban blowing up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan from those who would raze Confederate monuments. No one has to like Confederate war monuments and memorials, but every civilized person should recognize their historic and cultural value—even the value in constantly remembering their use for and association with evil causes including slavery and Jim Crow.” 

Students and others offended by Confederate monuments should avoid those sledgehammers. Instead, a recent case from UNC-Chapel Hill can be used as a guide. For years, the university’s “explicitly pro-Confederate” Silent Sam memorial (created in 1913 at the behest of the Daughters of the Confederacy) has been the subject of campus protest. To address student concerns and to “contextualize” Silent Sam’s history, the school in 2005 erected a counter monument called the Unsung Founders Memorial, which commemorates the slaves and black workers who helped to construct the university.

Unfortunately, some Chapel Hill students and protesters have recently demanded that Silent Sam and other similar monuments be removed entirely. This is the wrong approach. Better to fight offensive speech with more speech, such as the Unsung Founders monument. University leaders elsewhere should encourage students to embrace “contextualization” and, when feasible, to create counter monuments.

R. Owen Williams, president of the Associated Colleges of the South, recently wrote an article for the Atlantic sympathetic to protesters’ concerns about systemic racism on campus and in society generally. But Williams concluded, “Rather than [erase] the past, why not use it? Honoring and remembering are not the same. The soul of a nation is rooted in memory. But memory, like history, is a complicated and fallible narrative, vulnerable to error and manipulation. History matters much less if only the good parts are remembered….”

Williams is on to something important. Rather than tearing down our history, rather than rewriting it, or even countering it, students who are offended by what they deem to be symbols of racism should use them to spur their own achievements. The black student at Chapel Hill who is repulsed when walking past Silent Sam should nod to the old fellow, raise his or her school books, and simply state, “so look at me now,” and move on in smug satisfaction.

Still, the urge to seek emotional resolution by extirpating the past is a powerful natural tendency for those who feel downtrodden. One of the first things the people of Eastern Europe did when the Iron Curtain fell was to bring statues of communist tyrants such as Lenin, Stalin, and Ceausescu crashing to the ground. 

Yet, the situation on American campuses is far different. The current angry response is not the immediate celebration of coming to life that occurred in Eastern Europe. Those who destroyed the statues of Lenin suffered directly from the Communist regime—they had family members hauled off to die in the Gulag Archipelago, or even spent time there themselves. Their own freedom, particularly of expression, was greatly restricted. 

But the students at Chapel Hill and Missouri are attending the top public universities in their states, quite often at others’ expense. And their voices are not silenced; instead, every time one of them opens his or her mouth, it seems that a dozen media microphones rush to capture every word. Considerable time has elapsed since the great majority of racial injustices, and many black families have prospered in this country. For instance, the key leader of the Black Lives Matters protests at the University of Missouri, Jonathan Butler, is a graduate student and son of a millionaire.

What kind of place will the university become if small but loud groups—mobs, if you will—can erase the past, or the present? Indeed, to remove any traces of Thomas Jefferson, who did so much to advance the cause of freedom, does not signify a coming to life but a sort of death of the life of the mind and search for justice for all that he represented. Universities must try to avoid the anti-intellectual hysteria that is growing on the very campuses where preserving the past and open inquiry should most be upheld as ideals. That entails defending history, warts and all, even when the mob takes offense and refuses to recognize its value.