The Forum | General Education

Yale, Calhoun College, and Historical Amnesia

February 17, 2017 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Just last week, Yale University announced that it would rename Calhoun College, reversing an April 2016 decision to retain the residential college’s name, which honors the Antebellum South’s foremost politician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. For decades, Yale has heard objections to the Calhoun College name, based mainly on his provocative defense of the institution of slavery. More recently, the university has found itself caught up in the nationwide wave of student protests demanding the renaming of various historical institutions.

Students at Princeton have sought to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs, while students and faculty at the University of Virginia asked President Teresa Sullivan to stop quoting Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder. At Yale and elsewhere, these efforts reflect a growing desire to be rid of the past, rather than to engage it objectively, and learn from the monuments of both success and failure.

If you ask undergraduates what they know of John C. Calhoun, they will most likely tell you that he owned slaves. A somewhat more astute student might point to some of his speeches on the floor of the Senate and in particular his racist apology for the institution of slavery. Virtually none will be inclined to grapple with the central questions about majority rule that his constitutional theory addressed.

Yale’s desire to disavow the nation’s foremost apologist for slavery, who galvanized the Southern movement toward secession, is understandable. And Yale is to be commended for the deliberate consideration its Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming and its board of trustees, the Yale Corporation, have given this issue.

But it is troubling that Yale’s acquiescence may embolden a more indiscriminate erasure of historical memory at America’s elite colleges and universities. Elihu Yale avidly participated in and richly profited from the slave trade. Now that Yale’s president Peter Salovey has presided over the erasure of Calhoun’s name, is he ready to address the Yale Corporation about setting its sights on that yet bigger target? And what will be the educational and social benefit ultimately of the current wave of defenestrations? The slippery slope of hiding away historical figures who do not meet the ethical criteria of a later age can be steep indeed. Witness, for example, the removal of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi—whose positive influence on the American civil rights movement is beyond dispute—from the University of Ghana campus for racist sentiments he expressed.

ACTA’s 2016 report, No U.S. History?, found that 53 out of 76 top-ranked institutions (including Yale) do not require their history majors—let alone all undergraduates—to complete even one course in U.S. history. And already, Yale’s announcement has spurred renewed efforts at other schools to remove disfavored historical figures.

More than any other thinker of his era, Calhoun raised constitutional questions that were resolved by the sword. Disavowing unsavory historical figures is easy—seriously answering challenging questions about American history is more complicated. For more background on this issue, read ACTA’s reports on historical literacy.


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