The Merely Symbolic, Yet Highly Consequential, Renaming of Yale’s Calhoun College

As one of America’s historical institutions, Yale has a history that is entwined with that of its domicile nation. In fact, founded in 1701, and with roots that extend even further into the past, Yale predates the Declaration of Independence by three-quarters of a century. As such, the University has an obligation to bring to bear its singular institutional memory & position, for the service of the country in the present day.

We wish to suggest that Yale has thoughtfully & adequately fulfilled this role, and that it has in fact deftly walked a very fine line in what is a highly controversial arena.

The philosophical tension in the question of whether to rename Calhoun College stems from the inevitable conflict between past & future. The past provides us perspective and in our present state we owe a great deal to what has heretofore been accomplished by our ancestors. Any middle-school student of American history can trivially recite the great labors & sacrifices of past generations. Therefore, in a way, the past is sacrosanct.

However, there is one thing that the past is not: the past is not perfect (to use a grammatical pun). As a society, we must accept this notion, if we are at all to address the problems that still ail us, for these problems are indeed, at least in part, an artifact of history. It goes without saying that the most glaring example is that of the slave trade of the colonies pre-independence, which necessitated a civil war just so that the country could come to terms with it. And arguably, and this is a controversial statement, racism & bigotry of many forms continue in our country to the present day.

If we are thus able to draw a conceptual line between the events of the past and the problems of the present, then it becomes inevitable that a solution to our current maladies must necessarily address the historical context. Just like, for instance, the Constitution favorably informs our legislative & judicial systems today, in a similar but opposite way, institutional mementos of slavery & bigotry still have an effect on us, whether we know it or not. For instance, stained-glass windows of slaves picking cotton, as exist or existed at Calhoun, portray the activity as matter-of-fact and without censure, and therefore without acknowledging that what occurred in the past was wrong. And that is important.

How do a few pictures matter, one might ask! Or alternately, is it not in fact necessary to preserve them as cautionary tales so that all may see. We wish to argue that if archived, as in some equivalent of the Holocaust Museum, then the argument holds. But as adornment on a college wall, they are misplaced! And one need only tally the visceral reactions of current students in order to confirm our reasoning – ask them what they feel when they see these windows.

It is in this regard that the renaming of Calhoun College is significant. Calhoun, even judged by the standards of his time, was particularly blame-worthy for furthering the practice of slavery. And by removing, as adornments, his name & motifs, Yale is saying, once & for all, that what Calhoun did was wrong.

But, this is where it gets complicated, because not all that Calhoun did was wrong. Calhoun did accomplish some positives that bear remembering fondly. And it is in weighing the negatives of his character against the positives that the University has tread deftly, and appropriately. In the broader context, Yale, and in fact other flag-bearers of the American republic, must make similar determinations on many other occasions. To name a few, next in line are the questions of the renaming of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and the replacement of the seal of Harvard’s Law School. And after that is Oxford’s Rhodes.

In each case, Oxford, Princeton & Harvard will have to assess whether it is imperative to condemn the past, or alternatively, to acknowledge its foibles and yet preserve it for posterity. In each case, the answer will not be simple. But as with Calhoun, these questions are important, and they must be answered.