cancel culture, Christopher L. Eisgruber, Founding Fathers, history wars, Im-Politic, Ivy League, James Madison, Princeton University, race relations, racism, slavery, Washington Post, Woodrow Wilson, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Full disclosure: Although I graduated from Princeton University and believe that I got a great education there (for a princely sum, to be sure), for various reasons, I never felt much affinity to the place (except for the basketball and other athletics teams – long story). As a result, I’ve never given it a dime . Even so, it’s depressing to learn that for the last seven years, the school as been run by a leadership team that’s full either of guilt-driven liberals, ignoramuses, utter ditzes, or some combination of the two.
I know this because the university’s president, Christopher L Eisgruber, has just explained in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post why he persuaded Princeton’s Board of Trustees to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s School of Public and International Affairs.
My scorn for this move and those responsible for it has nothing to do with any doubt concerning the racist views and policies of a figure who was not only President of the United States, but president of Princeton. I’ve fully recognized Wilson as a racist here and here. Nor do I hold the former Woodrow Wilson School in any special regard. In fact, I’ve long considered “public and international affairs” as being about as legitimate a university course of study as sports communications.
Instead, I view the Wilson name removal as (to quote Eisgruber) “an excess of political correctness” precisely because he’s also expressed strong agreement with one of the few sensible notions that have emerged from America’s recent history wars – that there’s a crucial distinction between figures who are known only or mainly for supporting treasonous and racist and other odious views and policies, and those whose role in U.S. history entailed much much more. More.
In this vein, Eisgruber acknowledges explicitly that Wilson “is a far different figure than John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, people whose pro-slavery commitments defined their careers and who were sometimes honored for the purpose of supporting segregation or racism.” He recognizes that many of Wilson’s achievements both at the university and in the White House can legitimately be called “genuine” and even “grand.” And he goes on to admit that “I do not pretend to know how to evaluate his life or his staggering combination of achievement and failure.”
Weirder still: As Eisgruber explains, responding in 2015 to student demands that the university “de-Wilson-ize” itself Eisgruber asked the Board to study how Princeton was presenting Wilson’s record and legacy, and the school ultimately decided to “recount its history, including Wilson’s racism, more honestly.”
In my view, that’s exactly the right way to handle the matter, and I’ve since urged that participants in the national debate to think harder about similarly thoughtful ways to deal with other historical figures who also deserve to be remembered as more than racists whatever flaws on the issue they demonstrated or embodied.
But Eisgruber and the Princeton board have taken the easy, and simplistic way out. Although nowadays the concept of “slippery slope” is abused way too often (because it too conveniently defines out of existence any need and ability to make intelligent choices or draw important distinctions), Princeton’s decision raises the question of why Abraham Lincoln or the Founding Fathers, with their own problematic racial records and actual slave-owning, shouldn’t be expunged from the nation’s public places as well (or from whatever private places honor them).
According to Eisgruber, he changed his mind because even with the 2015 changes, Princeton was still honoring Wilson
“without regard to, and perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.
“And that, I now believe, is precisely the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored and turned a blind eye to racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people.”
But of course, the university had taken specific steps to (as Eisgruber told us) “recount its history, including Wilson’s racism, more honestly.” So what’s changed between then and now?
Similar questions arise from Eisgruber’s associated contention that “When a university names its public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably offers the honoree as a role model for its students. However grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.”
If so, however, why keep Wilson’s name on one of its residential colleges and on it’s “highest award for undergraduate alumni”? (As Eisgruber calls the Woodrow Wilson Prize. Unless that, too, has changed? Eisgruber didn’t specify.)
Finally, why have Eisgruber and the Board stopped with Wilson? The university also still honors the slave-owning (and pretty consistent slavery supporter) Founding Father and former President of the United States James Madison in at least two ways: a scholarly program called the James Madison Society, and a dining option called “Madison Society”. What the heck is so special about him? Why not kick this racist SOB’s name off the campus, too?
Nothing could be clearer than that Eisgruber has no rational answers to these questions – and may not have even asked them. In fact, the only intellectually honest or competent sentence in his entire article is his confession that “I do not pretend to know how to evaluate [Wilson’s] life or his staggering combination of achievement and failure.”
In other words, Princeton’s decision stands as a monument – to ignorance. And you can probably throw in intellectual cowardice and faddism as well.