Any renaming push on the Ivy campus should start at the top—with Elihu Yale, slave trader extraordinaire.
By Roger Kimball
Aug. 8, 2016 7:19 p.m. ET
The English novelist Kingsley Amis once observed that much that was wrong with the 20th century could be summed up in the word “workshop.” On American campuses today, I suspect that the operative word is “committee.”
On Aug. 1, Yale University president Peter Salovey announced that he is creating a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. There has been a craze for renaming things on college campuses the last couple of years—a common passion in unsettled times.
In the French Revolution, leaders restarted the calendar at zero and renamed the months of the year. The Soviets renamed cities, erased the names of political enemies from the historical record, and banned scientific theories that conflicted with Marxist doctrine.
At Princeton, Stanford, Georgetown, Harvard and elsewhere, students have demanded that buildings, programs and legacies be renamed to accommodate modern sensitivities. Amherst College has dropped Lord Jeffrey Amherst as its mascot because the colonial administrator was unkind to Indians. Students at the University of Missouri have petitioned to remove a statue of the “racist rapist” Thomas Jefferson. This is part of a larger effort, on and off campuses, to stamp out dissenting attitudes and rewrite history to comport with contemporary prejudices.
But isn’t the whole raison d’être of universities to break the myopia of the present and pursue the truth? Isn’t that one important reason they enjoy such lavish public support and tax breaks?
An 18th-century oil painting of Elihu Yale with a servant. ENLARGE
An 18th-century oil painting of Elihu Yale with a servant. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery
A point of contention at Yale has been the residential college named for John C. Calhoun, a congressman, senator, secretary of war and vice president. Alas, Calhoun was also an avid supporter of slavery.
Mr. Salovey is also perhaps still reeling from the Halloween Horror, the uproar last year over whether Ivy League students can be trusted to pick their own holiday costumes, which made Yale’s crybullies a national laughing stock. In the wake of that he earmarked $50 million for such initiatives as the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.
He then announced that Calhoun College would not change its name. Apparently, he has reconsidered. After the Committee on Renaming has done its work to develop “clearly delineated principles,” he wrote, “we will be able to hold requests for the removal of a historical name—including that of John C. Calhoun—up to them.”
I have unhappy news for Mr. Salovey. In the great racism sweepstakes, John Calhoun was an amateur. Far more egregious was Elihu Yale, the philanthropist whose benefactions helped found the university. As an administrator in India, he was deeply involved in the slave trade. He always made sure that ships leaving his jurisdiction for Europe carried at least 10 slaves. I propose that the committee on renaming table the issue of Calhoun College and concentrate on the far more flagrant name “Yale.”
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There is also the matter of historical artifacts. Earlier this year an unhappy employee at Calhoun College smashed a stained-glass window because it depicted slaves. He was dismissed but then, after a student outcry, rehired. In response, Mr. Salovey convened a Committee on Art in Public Spaces. Offending objects, he explained, including “certain windows,” would be “relocated” and “conserved for future study.” Wasn’t there a similar initiative in Europe in the late 1930s and 1940s?
Yale’s leaders have compared the renaming committee to the so-called Woodward Committee that, in the mid-1970s, issued on behalf of the school a ringing defense of free speech (“to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable”).
A closer historical parallel, however, might be the Committee of Public Safety, which during the French Revolution worked overtime to assure that citizens lived up to its ideal of virtue. “Virtue” was a word always on the lips of the revolutionaries in France. They took the term from the man whom Robespierre called a “prodigy of virtue,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In everyday life, acting virtuously means such boring things as being kind, honest and dutiful. For moral prodigies, such pedestrian examples are beneath notice. Rousseau, “drunk with virtue” as he put it in his “Confessions,” nonetheless shipped off to a foundlings home all five of the children he had with his semi-literate mistress. She protested, but Rousseau cared not for he had “never felt the least glimmering of love for her.”
Robespierre floated aloft upon a similarly callous intoxication. The Republic, he said, was founded on “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Hence the work of the Committee of Public Safety, whose chief handmaiden was the guillotine and whose activities depended critically on anonymous reports about those whose commitment to virtue was less than wholehearted.
Yale, though sitting on a tax-exempt endowment of $24 billion, does not have the guillotine. But like many institutions entrusted with educating America’s future leaders, it is hard at work undermining due process and fostering an atmosphere of anonymous accusation. In a campus-wide email this spring, Stephanie Spangler, a Yale professor of obstetrics and gynecology as well as “University Title IX Coordinator,” discussed the school’s plans to launch “on-line tools for reporting sexual misconduct anonymously.”
The right of due process and the right to face one’s accuser have been hallowed guarantors of liberty since the Roman Republic. They are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But those who are infatuated with their own virtue find it easy to dispense with such unwieldy constraints.
I suspect that Mr. Salovey believes he will be able to pacify the professional grievance-mongers on his campus by bribes and capitulations. He should remember what an earlier cultural provocateur, the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, said: “Satisfy our demands, and we’ve got twelve more. The more demands you satisfy, the more we’ve got.”
The Committee of Public Safety came into being in April 1793. On July 28, 1794, Robespierre, the man who oversaw the murder of so many, was himself guillotined. Thus do revolutions consume their abettors.
Mr. Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion and president and publisher of Encounter Books.