Tucked up here in the frozen tundra, we Minnesotans are far removed from the statue-smashing in the states of the old Confederacy. But we are not at all removed from the problem of having to concoct an answer to a question that has no answer: Where does all of this sort of thing end?
Lake Calhoun is no longer Lake Calhoun. Fair enough. Despite its near 200-year pedigree, and despite the fact that the name has oozed well beyond its shores, and despite the obvious fact that it was a great name for a lake, a strong case can be made for having gotten rid of it. Surveyors preparing the way for Fort Snelling named the lake after a South Carolinian, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Later a vice president and a U.S. senator, Calhoun was not just a slave owner, but an opponent of the central idea of the Declaration of Independence and a proponent of the notion that slavery was a “positive good.”
So the name has been changed to Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake). It’ll take some getting used to, but it was something that could be done.
But what’s next? What other pieces of history will have to be wiped out? Lacking both statues to topple and a Calhoun to castigate, what can we do to get with the march of history? Or should that be the march against history? Or the march to eliminate history?
We’re getting a glimpse of the direction of that march in the current campaign to rename buildings on the University of Minnesota campus. This campaign is not without its ironies. The tools of historical research are being used to highlight, then eliminate, history.
We don’t yet know the details, but the broad outlines are there. Former President Lotus Coffman (1920-1938), for whom Coffman Memorial Union is named, “excluded black students from campus housing and programs.” The university’s first dean of students, Edward Nicholson (1917-1941) “discouraged political speech.” (More than a few administrators now at more than a few colleges could face a similar charge.) The third target is Middlebrook Hall, named for William Middlebrook, who held various administrative posts between 1925 and 1959 and “supported practices that excluded minority and Jewish students.” Last on this list is Coffey Hall, named for President Walter Coffey (1941-1945), who “backed policies segregating black students.”
Vague as these charges are, they no doubt reflect the fact that each member of this quartet was very much a product of his time. But does any one of the four rise — or should that be fall — to the level of a John C. Calhoun? Hardly. And why just this particular foursome? There surely must have been many more who were also products of times very much less enlightened than our own.
One more question looms. Is ours the most enlightened age possible? Hardly. We may be on a march, but we surely have not come anywhere close to achieving the fully and permanently enlightened age that is heaven on earth.
Maybe that’s much too much to ask. Maybe it’s enough just to make a little progress. But how do we know that progress has been made? Maybe a reminder here and there would be helpful. Maybe four such reminders would do the trick.
If so, here’s an idea. Let’s keep the current names on these buildings, but let’s also mark our progress out of the Dark Ages with a permanent plaque somewhere near the entrance to each. On that plaque we could record what we currently deem to have been the failings of each namesake.
It might also be a good idea to date the plaque, while leaving some space for future revisions. But for the time being, students and faculty would be better able to determine — and celebrate — our superiority over, oops, make that progress out of, the more sinful dark age that has been transcended.
Meanwhile, today’s university administrators had better be thinking carefully about what the future might hold for them. Harvard recently permitted a separate ceremony for its black graduates. No doubt this event was requested, rather than imposed. But where does this sort of thing end?
During the chaotic days of the 1960s, African-American poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) accused America of first beating down blacks with segregation before turning to beating them down with integration.
Here and there, segregated dormitories can again be found on college campuses. Let’s see, should such residences be tolerated in the name of progress or banned in the name of progress? And in some future enlightened age will some college president of our dark age have his or her name stripped from a building for, well, for having tolerated such living quarters, or for encouraging them, or for banning them?
And then there is the issue of the new Jews of our currently enlightened age. Harvard is facing legal action for admission policies that are alleged to discriminate against Asian-Americans. In a past dark age, quotas were set to limit Jewish admission to elite schools. In our enlightened age, there seem to be quotas to ensure against the admission of too many Asian-American students. Will a day come when a subsequent enlightened age will move to strike from a building the name of a president who permitted, and perhaps even orchestrated, such dark-age policies?
Finally, there is great concern over campus rape. It is claimed that 1 in 4 college women have been sexually assaulted. What will we do in the future with buildings named after presidents whose administrations were once upon a time sullied by an epidemic of rape? Perhaps in a coming enlightened age, college dormitories will be resegregated on the basis of gender and a ban on alcohol will be policed and enforced. Maybe then there will be a move to eliminate any memory of our dark age of campus rape.
But wait a minute, isn’t a Puritanical ban on booze and the presence of single-sex dorms evidence of a dark age all its own? And haven’t we sanctioned coed dorms and tolerated alcohol because we have already become so terribly enlightened? It’s all very confusing. John C. Calhoun, where are you when we need you?
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.