This week, Walter Isaacson released his highly anticipated follow-up to his biography of Steve Jobs. It’s called “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” Isaacson opens his history with the story of one of the earliest pioneers of computer programming, a person who, as Isaacson has said, “defined the digital age,” a person without whom our digital revolution may never have happened — Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace.
Never heard of her? You’re not alone. Lovelace is one of countless women who has been written out of the history of computer programming, a list that also includes Jean Jennings, Frances Bilas and Grace Hopper. Hopper developed the first computer compiler after becoming one of the first women to earn a PhD in mathematics from Yale.
These female pioneers of programming represent just a few of the myriad examples of historical neglect. In the history of literature and engineering, medicine, law and politics, we confront story after story of women and men who have profoundly shaped their society only to be relegated to a historical footnote by their gender or their sexual orientation, their color, class or creed.
Many of these underappreciated heroes received their educations right here at Yale. And, following the lead of passionate students and faculty, the trustees have begun to consider possible names for the two new residential colleges. In an email to the University, President Peter Salovey formalized this process by asking members of the Yale community to name up to three candidates for this honor.
Much of the discussion surrounding the naming of the new residential colleges has been about numbers and diversity. Ten colleges named after old white men, many have argued, does not accurately reflect the diversity of Yale (Branford and Saybrook are named after towns in Connecticut). This is certainly true. But this is neither the only nor the best reason to name the two new colleges after female, LGBTQ and/or minority graduates.
These Yalies have changed history in their own right and have propelled us forward as a University and a nation. Naming the new residential colleges in honor of two of these graduates would not be a favor or a token gesture of diversity, progress or political correctness. It would be a long-overdue recognition that their accomplishments have shaped our school and our society just as much as those of the white male Elis we already celebrate. Grace Hopper, Edward Bouchet, Jane Matilda Bolin, Henry Roe Cloud, Laura Johnson Wylie and countless others have earned their places in history. Yale must use this opportunity to recognize these graduates not simply for the sake of diversity but for the sake of truth.
The University’s motto, after all, is Lux et Veritas — Light and Truth. What better way for Yale to uphold such a tradition than to shed light on those who have been forgotten by the discrimination of history? What better way to demonstrate the pursuit of truth than to search for and celebrate those unjustly overlooked by popular textbooks and curricula?
Just as Isaacson’s book reveals the critical but too often ignored role women have played in the digital revolution, we, too, can acknowledge the wrongs of historical discrimination. We, too, can use light to illuminate the truth — that the contributions of the female and minority graduates of this institution have been deeply influential and integral to our society. They deserve our recognition.
With the opening of the new residential colleges, we have a powerful opportunity as a University and as a community to write back into history those who’ve shaped it.
The Grace Hoppers and Edward Bouchets of Yale’s storied history do not need condescending tokens of appreciation. Their influence and accomplishments stand alone and match, if not top, those of some of the current colleges’ namesakes. Yale’s failure to recognize these graduates would not simply reflect a lack of diversity but a betrayal of the University’s mission. If Yale is truly committed to Lux et Veritas, to the pursuit and illumination of truth, it will use this opportunity to begin setting the record straight.
Another two colleges named after white men is not simply a bad representation of Yale. It’s bad history.
Cody Pomeranz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.