Erasing history at Yale

Oct 13, 2016 by

Michael Rubin –

Universities once were centers of education, elucidating the past to inform the future. No longer. Yale University has long ago subordinated intellectual inquiry to political correctness and social posturing to scholarship. It seeks headlines, for example, by being a pioneer on transgender activism but increasingly is shut out of Nobel Prize contention for its research. It has interceded pre-publication to censor books at the theoretically-independent Yale University Press to stay on the right side of political correctness. And, of course, in recent years, it has consumed itself in a debate over renaming Calhoun College, a residential dorm named after John Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States who also defended slavery. It recently rehired a dishwasher who smashed a historic stain glass window in the college (which was already slated for removal to a museum) because it depicted slavery. Rather than condemn a senseless act of vandalism, students celebrated it: Feelings must triumph over history and art.

Flyers are seen posted on a college noticeboard on campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleto.

That does not mean there are not valid arguments to make on both sides of the debate about renaming Calhoun College: Calhoun’s legacy goes well beyond slavery and, regardless, many men of his day owned slaves. Still, there is a difference between living within the context of one’s day and actively defending an institution like slavery.

To judge all figures of the past through the moral judgment and perhaps intellectual fads of the present undercuts the appreciation of history and the evolution of society, if for no other reason than it shrinks permissible historical memory. After all, it is arrogant to believe that today’s morality will set the standard for the future. and so even the most progressive figures might find themselves on the wrong side of history. As science clarifies notions to as when life begins, today’s feminist activists may find themselves castigated in the future as apologists for genocide, especially given the racial disparity in abortion.

At Yale, however, the grievance industry now threatens to undermine any recognition, let alone commemoration, of the past.

At Yale, however, the grievance industry now threatens to undermine any recognition, let alone commemoration, of the past. Consider last Saturday’s football game between Yale and Dartmouth: Because the game marked a century since the two teams’ first match-up, the Yale program guide featured an amalgam of program covers from the past century. Between 1920 and 1974, the Dartmouth’s football team was called the Indians, and so many past covers depicted cartoonish versions of the Yale Bulldog and a Dartmouth Indian. Those covers represent popular culture in a period past but, according to students and even some administrators, recognizing the depiction of Native Americans in the past is no longer acceptable. From the Yale Daily News:

The booklets, which were printed to commemorate the football team’s 100th game against Dartmouth, included eight historic renditions of program covers from past years… The image of the cover surfaced on social media Saturday when Mary Kathryn Nagle, executive director for the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, tweeted out a picture of the program, criticizing the “dehumanizing images of redface.” Students’ condemnation of the cover took off after an image of it was posted on the Overheard at Yale Facebook page Sunday afternoon. Later that day, Director of Athletics Thomas Beckett responded on behalf of Yale Athletics and issued an apology for the offensive images in a school-wide email. In his message to the Yale community, Beckett said that Yale Athletics was sorry for the hurt the images may have caused individuals at Yale, particularly those from Native American communities. He added the artwork, while historic, was not featured with the intention of condoning racially insensitive stereotypes… The Association of Native Americans at Yale released a statement on Facebook saying the images create a non-inclusive learning environment at Yale and make it challenging to promote accurate portrayals of indigenous peoples.

Let’s put aside the fact that depictions of the past do not make it more challenging to promote accurate portrays of Native Americans any more than a recognition that vaudeville actors sometimes wore blackface make it challenging to today portray African Americans accurately.

What Yale students and faculty seem to be saying is that historical imagery is to be quarantined or banned even at an institution that once prided itself on valuing intellectual freedom and inquiry. If those raising complaints were just a radical fringe, there would be no need to rush an apology in a university-wide email. The logic to the ban and apology is that artwork of yesteryear must conform to the precepts of today.  To demonstrate how dangerous this idea is, let’s apply that to the broader world:

Islamic social mores today are more conservative than they were in the first decades of Islam. Consider Qusayr Amra, a UNESCO world heritage site and perhaps the most famous of Jordan’s early Islamic desert castles, located halfway between Amman and the Iraqi border. Built in the early eighth century AD, the castle is famous for its frescoes, many of which depict bare-breasted women, music, and other subjects strictly forbidden by modern Islamic standards. Should Jordan close the castle, let alone destroy it as similar sites in Saudi Arabia would be? After all, the depiction of such subjects can deeply offensive to conservative Muslims (or Jews or Christians). Thankfully, Jordan recognizes history is just that, and should be preserved. It does not encourage vandalism nor would it excuse it.

Alas, when it comes to so many universities today, the desire to hide, ban, and break symbols have transformed them less into centers of learning and more into safe-spaces for a new Taliban.

The same holds true for depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Contemporary commentators say that these are strictly forbidden in Islam and offensive enough to result in death for those making the depiction. And yet, this has not always been the case.  Many Islamic manuscripts from the past depict the Prophet Muhammad; Saudi-funded iconoclasm was still centuries away.

Back to New Haven: The desire embraced by many in the university community to whitewash history to preserve the sensibilities of the present is as destructive to understanding the past as are efforts by radical Islamists to erase their own heritage. The West lamented the Taliban’s destruction of 1700-year-old Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. What successive Islamic dynasties had for centuries ignored fell to the dynamite of those who demanded no artifact of the past offend their current sensitivity.

Alas, when it comes to so many universities today, the desire to hide, ban, and break symbols have transformed them less into centers of learning and more into safe-spaces for a new Taliban. Civilization is fragile. It only takes a generation or two to erase common memory and the basis of shared citizenship. To leave a generation unanchored in time or place and without an appreciation of context does not encourage enlightenment but rather represents the unmooring of society and the tyranny of the few.

Source: Erasing history at Yale – AEI | Society and Culture Blog » AEIdeas

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