The New York Sun posted an article yesterday about Princeton University’s decision to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its school of public affairs. This reverses a decision made four years ago when the topic was also brought up.
The article reports:
…That was in 2016, when Princeton’s trustees, reacting to concerns within the school community and given impetus by Black Lives Matter, appointed a committee to appraise the 28th president of America, decided to continue to honor him.
At issue then was “the position he took as Princeton’s president to prevent the enrollment of black students and the policies he instituted as U.S. president that resulted in the re-segregation of the federal civil service.” Wilson’s name was on not only the School of Public & International Affairs but also a residential college. The board followed the committee’s recommendation to keep Wilson’s name. It issued what seemed to be an important statement.
“Contextualization is imperative,” it said. “Princeton must openly and candidly recognize that Wilson, like other historical figures, leaves behind a complex legacy with both positive and negative repercussions, and that the use of his name implies no endorsement of views and actions that conflict with the values and aspirations of our times.” As the cancel movement spreads today, that plea for context seems even more important.
The article concludes:
So where does that leave us? Writing in 2016 of Wilson’s views on race, scholar David Kennedy said that “We can wish that he had possessed qualities of imagination and empathy that would have liberated him from those views, but he did not.” Kennedy concluded that “In a world where there is no shortage of evil, it surely seems perverse to highlight the imperfections, rather than the positive accomplishments, of those who tried to do their best.”
Four years after echoing Professor Kennedy’s judgment, Princeton has suddenly zeroed in on Wilson’s imperfections. Whether that will serve the cause of racial understanding at the university remains to be seen. How sad it would be were one of two Princeton graduates to lead America and Princeton’s only Nobel laureate in peace — not to mention the coiner of the motto “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” — confined to the margin of the university’s institutional memory.
We seem to have lost the concept of viewing history in its context. Slavery and racism are part of America’s past, but slavery is gone and racism is not the acceptable order of the day, as it once was. Renaming things and tearing down statues will not change what was. It is time instead to deal with what is and work to make it better.