Taylor: A principal worth the name

Last week, a band of courageous Yale students marched around campus and put their chalk to the concrete, advancing new names for those residential colleges whose eponyms either supported slavery or owned slaves themselves. My own college, for instance, officially named after Benjamin Silliman, was renamed Joseph Cinque College after the leader of the Amistad mutiny.

Unlike Wikipedia, which summarizes Silliman as “an American chemist, one of the first American professors of science (at Yale University), and the first to distill petroleum,” these chalk-armed students realize that the crucial fact about Silliman’s life is that he supported slavery (even if, technically, he called slavery a “great national evil”).

Most people tend to view the designation of a building, or a college, as a way to honor its namesake for his or her contribution to the relevant institution, or else a way to recognize those lives that most assuredly benefited humankind as a whole. But such considerations can often be complicated or contentious. The Chalkers, as I will call them, take a more black-and-white approach. Colleges should be named only with attention to the potential namesakes’ relation to slavery and racial equality.

While I agree, needless to say, that this relation should be the chief consideration, I can’t help but feel that contributions to Yale merit some attention in the appellative process. We might look into creating an algorithm that could weigh CSRI (commitment to slavery or racial inequality) against CYGA (contribution to Yale and general awesomeness) and so determine, with the authoritative sanction of mathematics, the worthiness of prospective eponyms.

Take George Berkeley, for example. For promoting the kidnapping of Native American children, we might subtract four points. For wanting to educate Native American children, add two points. For owning a slave-worked farm, divide by three. For donating that slave-worked farm to Yale, thereby providing for Yale’s first scholarship fund, multiply by π/2. Finally, four bonus points for the phrase “esse est percipi.” Though attaining a positive CYGA index of 2.953, the bishop falls far short of the 10 point minimum required of a college namesake. At most, he gets a plaque in one of the cubicles in Bass.

But even with such innovative nomenclatural methods, there is no avoiding the possibility — nay, the certainty — that over time, even those names that now seem most innocuous to us will exude the stench of moral opprobrium. Who knows where ethical progress will take us? As every good relativist knows, the march of morality is not attached to anything, and does not rest atop any foundational “principles.” In 2035, mustaches might very well carry the ignominy of cultural disgust and the penalty of legal prosecution. Anything named after Provost Peter Salovey (despite his repentance in 2009) will require another designation.

Consequently I propose that the algorithm be applied to every college and every building not merely once, but regularly, perhaps every decade, perhaps every couple of years. What better way to inspire college pride than to allow students to submit their quantified moral sentiments to a database, which will then crunch the numbers and produce the name of the candidate boasting the highest CYGA index? Such a ritual has about it all the charm of Hogwarts’s Sorting Hat.

Then again, given the inevitable differences in students’ moral emotions, there will always be a number of them who are disappointed, if not outraged, by the decision of their peers. Should these students be subjected to the agony of inhabiting a college whose namesake they detest? If there’s anything we can agree on, it is that individual choice trumps all. Would it be all that radical to suggest that every student be allowed to choose for him- or herself whom he or she would like his or her college to be named after?

Granted, the paperwork would be a mess, and the freshman ordeal of remembering everyone’s college would be significantly more distressing. But when was it ever less than a treason to the heart of Yale to settle for the easy way out?

Someone will suggest that we forgive the faults of our predecessors and honor them for their achievements. I, for one, cannot stomach such old-fashioned cop-outs. I, with the Chalkers, am putting my foot down.

From now on, I am not a member of Silliman College. Chemistry annoys me. Petroleum is evil. From now on, I am a member of Donald Kagan College. My mascot is the Spartan hoplite. My motto, “Respect and honor!”

Bryce taylor is a junior in Silliman College.

Comments

  • Michel F.

    Clearly the names of most of the colleges are more closely associated with the colleges themselves than with their eponyms. I doubt that more than a quarter of undergraduates could tell you who George Berkeley was, and he’s one of the least obscure of the bunch. I myself have ceased to think of Jonathan Edwards primarily in terms of spiders and instead think of “it” as that bit of stone, dirt and furnishings adjacent to the library walk. Both the chalkers and their satirists are mistaken in thinking that the names refer to these historical individuals. They refer to the colleges. Thus everyone pronounces Berkeley “Burr-klee”. Almost no one knows (or has any interest in) the biographical details of most of the eponyms. The predicates most appropriate to “Silliman” are “large”, “at the corner of College and Grove” and “zombie-proof”. Petroleum plays no role here. It will not play a role.

  • Bravo

    Well done, Bryce. I’m glad to see that something so worthy of satire has received its due. This whole thing is ridiculous.

  • ROFLCOPTER

    Mr Taylor:

    I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    Sincerely,
    ROFLCOPTER

  • Branford ’10

    “as every good relativist knows, the march of morality is not attached to anything, and does not rest atop any foundational “principles.” In 2035, mustaches might very well carry the ignominy of cultural disgust and the penalty of legal prosecution.”

    So moral indignation against slavery is just a silly modern cultural whim? It’s completely insignificant that we choose to honor people who promoted enslaving other human beings? I have so much trouble sometimes wrapping my head around how blind so many yale students are to their privilege. Maybe to the author slavery is simply a distant historical fact that was perfectly acceptable for people to support at the time. But for many others that history is far more personal and far more dark, and taking steps to acknowledge the importance of human equality is not just a silly game.

  • yale 08

    ummm, Branford ’10,

    The author argues against the moral relativism you describe.

  • Y11

    Pwned, chalkers!

  • Hieronymus

    The chalkers were weak. If they cared, REALLY cared, they would fight slavery in the Sudan–not the ALREADY DEAD SLAVERY and TOTAL FREEDOM of the Yale campus.

    But, as in the man who seeks his keys under the streetlamp regardless of where he lost them, the light is brighter here…

  • Recent Alum

    Good column.