On Monday, the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming held a meeting at the Sterling Law Building to solicit student opinion. This is a seminal point in the history of our University. The principles agreed upon will form the basis of all future decisions related to the naming and renaming of campus buildings. We are charged with nothing less than determining the ethos of our campus and the legitimacy of our heroes. There are shortcomings in this process: The ultimate decision for renaming will always lie with the shadowy members of the Yale Corporation, who in form and substance most closely resemble the World Controllers of the dystopian “Brave New World.” But barring this obvious democratic deficit, we all have a responsibility to contribute to the discussion. I set out my suggestions here.
We must acknowledge the difference between memorialization and history. The first principle is that memorials belong to present generations: They are normative claims about what we should aspire to as a society and should therefore evolve. Memorials are by definition public (even for a private university) and serve to glorify people for their ideals and legacies. They are constant reminders of aspirations: compassion, generosity, inclusiveness, democracy.
As society changes, its heroes change accordingly. It might have seemed appropriate to Americans generations ago to glorify a fanatical racist like John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, quite simply because American culture historically valued self-determination and governance by whites and for whites. In our time, real heroes are people who have fought for justice and equality, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Insofar as we value those ideals we should honor these people.
Changing names does not erase history. The main argument from critics of renaming is that it whitewashes history. These people claim that we should embrace names of distasteful figures so that we can always remember their specific historical context. Two responses: First, it is impossible to delink glorification from public memorialization even if people claim that a name merely preserves history. Second, there are much simpler ways to “preserve” history. A small plaque may do. The great thing about a democracy is that we have the capacity to produce critical histories of once-cherished figures. People in South Africa still remember the effects of brutal racism, although there are now fewer roads and buildings named after Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.
When we place emphasis on current aspirations, we glean a second principle that helps overcome temporal relativity of values. We should memorialize people who were extraordinarily progressive for their time, and disregard people who were egregiously wrong. For the average, we should reserve a more nuanced judgment. We should create a deviation-from-the-mean procedure for societal norms and rely on the work of professional historians. If we truly want to glorify inspirational people, what more could speak of their moral character than fighting for revolutionary concepts before their time. In American history, these are people like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.
Conversely, people who held extraordinarily reactionary positions should not be memorialized. These are people who were extreme even for their time: like Calhoun, who saw slavery as a positive good, not a necessary evil.
By contrast, it is much harder to judge people who held repulsive views which were common for their time. I think the only way to decide this is a subjective, democratic discussion that weighs different contributions. Benjamin Franklin was a great scientist and statesman but also a slave owner. It is up to us to decide if his scientific and political contributions can ever outweigh his racism.
The last principle concerns the interaction of donors and private universities. We must maintain that a university is nothing without its principles and that we should not have to compromise our values for donations. If names are to evolve with changing values, the University must have complete autonomy to change them. Two concrete proposals ensure this: Donations should not be related to naming, and insofar as they are related it should come with the explicit understanding that the name can be changed. In the hypothetical future, should we come to think that capitalism is incompatible with human rights, Schwarzman should find himself with one less building named after him.
These principles might have drastic conclusions: Are no names safe from the scythe of future opinion? Would I even recognize Yale in 100 years? What many forget to consider is that we are already a completely different Yale from 100 or even 50 years ago. We are a diverse campus that believes in the equality of all. How true is that of Yalies past? Tradition is artificial. Names of residential colleges seem important to us, but the buildings themselves were not even built for the majority of Yale’s existence. Names only become important because they are symbols of our highest aspirations.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs every other Thursday. Contact him at email@example.com .