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Presentism: The Dangerous Virus Spreading Across College Campuses (Forbes.com) December 2, 2015

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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American college campuses are apparently natural hosts for a variety of intellectual viruses.  Now comes the latest:  presentism, the idea that we should apply the modern world’s moral sensibilities to judge people and practices of the past.  And, if historical characters are found wanting in the judgment of the present, the virus should eradicate their names from the campus.

The virus struck Georgetown University, where presentist protestors have wiped out the names of two former college presidents from buildings because they once sold slaves in order to pay off campus debt.  As expected, a similar outbreak hit Berkeley as presentists want to remove the name of one former campus president who, according to a press release from the Black Student Union (BSU) was an “imperialist…in perpetuating American colonialism” and another who played a key role in manufacturing munitions for the Confederate States Army.  Meanwhile Yale is debating whether to rename a college now recognizing slavery-defender John C. Calhoun.  The list of campuses dealing with this disease is lengthy and growing.

The epicenter of the virus is Princeton University where the Black Justice League has called for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs and from the Wilson House.  This viral attack seems especially pernicious since Wilson was not only a graduate of the school, but also its president during a formative period in its academic development, later serving as Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States.  And what was his unforgivable sin?  Even though he is remembered as a successful progressive president (in the top ten of presidential surveys), he systematically removed blacks from the civil service.

Let’s acknowledge that most modern Americans are not fans of slavery, the confederacy or racism.  But is it right or useful to go back into history and cleanse the campus of references to those events and people who, in an earlier era with a different set of values, participated in them?  So much is lost if we insist on this approach to history:

–Leaders are not perfect.  In fact, the very qualities that may lead to huge success may also result in grand failures.  Ask Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton or, yes, Woodrow Wilson.  We’re better off celebrating and learning from leaders warts and all.

–History itself is full of failures and successes.  Before the U.S., essentially every culture and country had slavery.  Only in America was the prospect of eliminating it on the table at the founding, and eventually it was accomplished.  Are we now to cleanse the public square of all failures?

–Colleges should not be places of intolerance but of openness and learning.  Students must be prepared to hear lectures and have experiences that stretch them, even make them uncomfortable.  It’s part of the free and open environment of learning.

The alternative will lead to absurdity.  Can we no longer call our nation’s capital Washington, D.C. because George Washington owned slaves?  Must we remove other presidents from the currency because they lived by the values of their time and culture, not by the enlightenment of the 21st century?

I suggest, instead, the approach of a minister friend who, when he preaches from the Bible, asks people to remove their modern glasses.  Leave them at the TSA inspection station, he counsels, when you prepare for a trip to the past.  Because only when you strip away your modern preconceptions can you truly understand, appreciate and learn from history.

 

To read the original column at Forbes.com:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2015/12/01/presentism-the-dangerous-virus-spreading-across-college-campuses/

 

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