President Adam Falk wrote a letter to the College community in early December stating that historical structures (i.e. campus buildings) and decorations (statues, etc.) seem “problematic in a modern context” and are somehow “less welcoming” and “not fully inclusive in this century.” He announced that he would be directing a committee to determine what should be done with articles that don’t fit today’s sensitivities, among other tasks. Additionally, the newly-renovated Log will have a mural secreted because of a depiction that is “of particular concern.”
It seems to me that the premise of Falk’s initiative is twofold: that today is part of a different era than that which preceded us in the previous two centuries and, also, that we have found ourselves in a place where we simply can’t live comfortably with our history. In short, the remnants of that history are no longer “welcoming” (whatever that means) and must be “considered” by a panel of experts. I certainly agree with the first part, because all societies evolve over time. The second part of the premise, however, is that, as a result, it is now advisable to judge all decorations and monuments of an earlier era according to the standards of today. I disagree.
In my view, any culture, entity or country that attempts to erase or modify history is, simply put, illiberal, dictatorial and fascist. Two instances from recent history come quickly to mind: the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying ancient Buddhist statues and Mao’s exhortations to his citizenry to pillage the Great Wall for materials in an effort to erase a previous era. We should be asking ourselves, “Why do totalitarians seek to destroy their own heritage? Why would a liberal arts institution strive to do the same?”
My suggestion is that rather than modify or veil our history with all its warts, we insist that incoming freshmen (can I still say freshmen?) enroll in mandatory comparative history courses. Let’s compare our country’s unvarnished history to Europe’s, Africa’s, South America’s, Asia’s and so on. Yes, we had slavery, but the 13th Amendment eradicated it after 620,000 American deaths over 150 years ago. As we know, slavery still exists in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Yes, we mistreated and lied to the American Indians. We discriminated against our freed black population after the Civil War, but incrementally passed laws to rectify those mistakes. I would note that blacks are more likely to distrust the medical establishment, perhaps due to the Tuskegee experiments among other reasons but, as a hospital board member, I see the daily outreach to black populations to encourage them to overcome their suspicions and access healthcare.
I recently read the College’s mission statement and, if it is still in force, the College is proposing to meander well outside that mission. In my personal view (and in comportment with the document cited), the College’s number one priority is, or should be, to prepare students for what awaits them upon graduation. There are no safe spaces on Wall Street (or any other street), and graduates will be subjected to speech or actions by others that offend them. In the real world, people will consider some of the complaints heard at Williams to be trivial; graduates will be told to “grow up” and get back to work (assuming they are able to get a job). Why are we pampering the most elite students in this country?
Lastly, I just want to emphasize Falk’s comment regarding the Log mural, to wit: “Covering it now is not intended to be a prejudgment – of any kind –.” Really? How utterly absurd is that statement? If Falk has decided to preemptively cover the mural, then he’s delivered his opinion, and this prejudgment serves as a road map for the esteemed committee that will judge what is “unwelcoming” or offensive to what is apparently a very fragile student body. (Having said that, it’s been my experience that those students who are offended by the mural are a distinct but vocal minority, so I apologize to the preponderance of the student body for being judgmental.)
The Board of Trustees is the ultimate arbiter of what should happen on campus regarding this adolescence (on the part of the administration as well as the student body). If you were to poll students and alumni, I think you would get a huge majority condemning Falk’s letter of intentions
I don’t suggest the Board do the polling; I suggest they be the adults on campus and tell the community to stop the puerile grievances and get back to more serious endeavors.
Bruce Entwisle ’76 majored in English. He lives in Philadelphia, Pa.