Princeton University was as tied to Woodrow Wilson as a school could be. Not only was Wilson the nation’s 28th President, but also the president of Princeton.
As the school’s president in the early 20th century, Wilson initiated its expansion into a full-scale university. He lifted educational standards, created academic majors and introduced the small-group classes, often led by professors, known as precepts.
And so, his name was on the wall there.
To honor him, Princeton created the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — an elite institution within an elite institution — and a residential complex, Wilson College, where quotations from the revered leader have been displayed on a television screen in the dining hall.
And lest there be any doubt, Wilson was also a racist. Not in the slave-owning sense, like the founding fathers, but in the more banal sense.
But until posters started appearing around campus in September, one aspect of Wilson’s legacy was seldom discussed: his racist views, and the ways he acted on them as president of the United States.
The posters, put up by a year-old student group called the Black Justice League, featured some of Wilson’s more offensive quotes, including his comment to an African-American leader that “segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you,” and led to a remarkable two days at this genteel campus last week.
Indeed, the impact of Wilson’s racist policies are vividly, if somewhat melodramatically, described by Gordon Davis.
Wilson, a Virginia-born Democrat, is mostly remembered as a progressive, internationalist statesman, a benign and wise leader, a father of modern American political science and one of our nation’s great presidents.
But he was also an avowed racist. And unlike many of his predecessors and successors in the White House, he put that racism into action through public policy. Most notably, his administration oversaw the segregation of the federal government, destroying the careers of thousands of talented and accomplished black civil servants — including John Abraham Davis, my paternal grandfather.
All of this is a matter of history. It wasn’t a secret that Wilson was racist, but he existed in a different time of American history, when overt racism was still an acceptable view and course of action.
In response to demands by the Black Justice League, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber sent out an email that said:
One of the most sensitive and controversial issues pertains to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the campus. As every Princetonian knows, Wilson left a lasting imprint on this University and this campus, and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing. As a University we have to be open to thoughtful re-examination of our own history, and I believe it is appropriate to engage our community in a careful exploration of this legacy.
After assessing the information it has gathered and hearing the views of all parts of the Princeton community, the Board will decide whether there are any changes that should be made in how the University recognizes Wilson’s legacy.
This may be the precursor to the eradication of Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, or a palliative for those demanding it. What to do?
American universities are steeped in tradition and history, and as current complaints point out, much of it fails to withstand scrutiny when viewed through the prism of presentism, the view of conduct from an earlier age through the present-day norms. One by one, historical figures, from Wilson to Thomas Jefferson, are being held up for actions that were ordinary in their time, but venal today.
Does this justify the Stalinist-type eradication of their existence? Does this justify their post-hoc vilification? Does the bad erase the good? Does the bad really constitute bad, given that it existed in a historical context very different than today?
The students may subject their complaints to ridicule by their claims that they can’t eat, sleep or study due to the pain of their perceptions, their demands for safe spaces where their feelings are respected. And they deserve the ridicule for behaving like such fragile teacups. To add to the problem, many of their complaints turn out to be factually false, whether lies or exaggerations.
But the complaint that Woodrow Wilson was a racist isn’t false. Put aside the infantile melodrama surrounding their special snowflake cries, and consider whether this time they have a complaint worthy of being taken seriously.
There are two ways to view a solution. The eradication of Wilson’s legacy is insane; he existed. He was a huge presence at Princeton. He’s still the 28th President of the United States no matter how much of a racist he was.
But does the good he accomplished, in light of his racism, suffice to keep him in a place of high honor at Princeton? In other words, while Wilson can’t be turned into a non-person because he’s reviled today, should he remain on a pedestal?
A serious answer to the question is hard to come by, given the melodrama. It’s also problematic that this reflects the demands of one identity group. Should every identity group, whether its holds sway today or in the future, be entitled to wipe out historical figures who failed to meet with their approval?
Just as Christopher Columbus has been ripped to shreds, there is likely no historical figure that can pass politically correct muster. Even Martin Luther King was a philandering plagiarist. And the day will come when race isn’t the front burner issue, and the first word of Black Justice League will be replaced with other identity groups, also calling for the eradication of their hated historical figures. Soon enough, the only viable names will be trees and cute animals, as every person will fail to withstand politically correct scrutiny.
So remember historical fact. Remember that Wilson did great things and terrible things. But the revisionist history of “presentism” doesn’t change history. The name on the wall isn’t there to hurt your feelings, but as a testament to the good Wilson accomplished. This too is historical fact.
And if this creates the dreaded feelings of being “unwelcome” and “disrespected,” such that you can’t bear the trauma of attending Princeton University, one of the most elite and privileged places on earth, then you need to grow up or seek psychological help.
The history of mankind is replete with scars and blemishes, but it’s ours, and brought us to the point where you can cry about your hurt feelings. You don’t have to love and honor anyone or anything you find repugnant, but you don’t get to deny history no matter how much it makes you cry. Get over it.