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Excising Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Never mind trying to excise the name of a mere vice president from a Minneapolis lake, as is the case with John C. Calhoun, students at Princeton University want to excise the name of a full-fledged U.S. president from its campus, Woodrow Wilson.

Of Wilson, who also served as president of Princeton, let’s just say that none of his Fourteen Points had anything to do with expanding freedom for African-Americans. But then again American politics in the early 20th century were not exactly awash in fair-minded leaders when it came to race, at least as gauged by present-day criteria. If there were, Wilson presumably would not have been able to segregate the military and civil service as he did, which is at the heart of the students’ anger and campaign.

A question. As contentious issues go, same-sex marriage has been around much longer than the current Wilsonian flap. But given that few political or other leaders supported it until the historical equivalent of five minutes ago, how could any university – if one were to use Princeton students’ present-day standard – have had anything morally pure to do with luminaries who opposed it, one might construe, in their homophobic days?

What were commencement committees, for example, thinking in picking speakers and honorees? Why were they so obstinate in refusing to accurately soothsay? By what ethical lassitude did graduating seniors not turn their backs on such morally guilty graduation-day speakers – which is to say just about everyone who offered 20 minutes of profound life lessons – including Barack Obama himself?

What about FDR? Or Richard Wagner?

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

Or switching presidents, how is it we’re still celebrating Franklin Roosevelt when he barely lifted a cultured pinky when he had chances to save significant numbers of European Jews and others during the Holocaust – all the while, not incidentally, keeping the armed forces segregated? Why does FDR have a monument in Washington? Why do DFLers still have dinners named after him? 

Putting aside the honoring of famous, if flawed people by naming buildings or schools of public affairs after them, as is the case with Wilson, what if colleges and universities really did use present-day standards in determining whom our future leaders should be obliged to study and encouraged to appreciate?

FDR might not have been anti-Semitic as such, but composer Richard Wagner certainly was. Why are students at our finest conservatories expected to learn about his Ring Cycle? “Not another note,” at least a few of them should demand.

As with Wagner, T.S. Eliot never even thought about endowing scholarships at Yeshiva University (if you catch my drift). But literature majors in places like Princeton are still expected to study the love life of his pal J. Alfred Prufrock? “Poof,” dissidents ought to say, since sanctifying P.C. at Ivy heights would seem to call for consistency.

And my goodness, there’s Shakespeare’s Shylock and the expectation that students, Jewish ones very much included, read “The Merchant of Venice.” If only such a requirement were but a “micro-, not macro-aggression,” the Bard might be granted a pass and remain in syllabi given his large and living corpus. (For readers unfamiliar with the emergence of “micro-aggressions” in American higher education, boy do you have a treat coming.)

By the way, why is "Huckleberry Finn" seemingly getting a pass these days? What did Mark Twain ever do to deserve such disrespect?

Dealing with student laments

The temper of the times and the temperaments of many students being what they are, it’s not hard to see why some Princeton students are demanding Woodrow Wilson’s “shades of Stalinesque” removal, as syndicated columnist Barry Casselman might put it. Their efforts have caused me to recall something I regret not saying when I had the chance a while back.

The topic on the table was student laments at a major university. A senior official had just told me and others what they were upset about and I said something about how some number of students always complain, as that’s just what they do. The official then asked, “But what should I say when they come to see me?”

“Tell them to grow up,” I craved responding, but he had already called on others for their advice.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent book is "Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future."

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Comments (3)

I agree with Mitch Perlstein????

Strange as it may seem, Mitch Perlstein is correct about something.

It's honestly pretty difficult to find a US President that didn't do something morally horrific. FDR put citizens of Japanese origin in detention camps, Lincoln censored the press and established a brutal surveillance state, Teddy Roosevelt manufactured a conflict with Spain to expand America territories (admittedly not while president) and actively meddled with legitimate South American governments, Thomas Jefferson ordered a brutal Indian Removal policy that violated treaties with said Indians, Ronald Reagan illegally sold weapons to Iran to illegally fund rebels in Nicaragua.

The only presidents I can think of who did nothing morally repugnant during their terms are William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield. You can probably guess why they are the only two. So, should we only be able to name things after these guys?

In Situ

When I was in school studying literary criticism, my professors always pressed us to consider the original situation in which the passage was written. I would think that it would be fair to do the same with historical persons as well. Measure them against their contemporary peers and base your judgment on that.

I'm also wary of measuring government leaders against the average person. Certainly there are moral impacts on everyone's decisions, but a government leader has more to balance than most of us. That doesn't excuse them when they do make a decision that is morally repugnant, but again, in light of their period in time and culture, how do their decisions measure up against other decisions being made at the same time and in the same culture?

I like to think I would have acted in a morally enlightened way were I in their shoes, but sometimes I wonder if I really would have.

Getting the drift

I'm not sure I got Mr. Perlstein's drift about T.S. Eliot not even thinking about funding scholarships at Yeshiva University.

I think I get his point about judging historical figures by modern standards. The people who want Wilson excised seem to feel about Wilson as a racist how I might feel if hitherto unknown evidence came to light that Wilson was a child molester. It depends on your point of view. I doubt they will get their wish, Wilson having not been much more or less racist than most of his predecessors or successors as President.

I doubt you can make anything partisan about censorship. Liberals are often as guilty as conservatives when it comes to suppressing literature or other art forms. "Huck Finn" by the way is one of the most perennially objected and suppressed to works of literature in the US by School Boards. I think it a mistake, to equate, as Mr. Perlstein seems to, academic decisions about which works are worthy of the "literary canon" or core curriculum with censorship. Reasonable minds can disagree whether "Huck Finn" , say, deserves to be among the 100 great works of American lit. or that it must be taught as part of a core curriculum versus Toni Morrison's "Beloved", as an example. A school board decision to prevent a book from being read and taught by a teacher as part of his or her curriculum is censorship. A teacher's decision to replace "Huck Finn" with something else is not.