Saturday, June 27, 2020

Reckoning with Woodrow Wilson

In a Saturday email to the members of the Princeton community, University President Christopher Eisgruber announced that, on his recommendation, the Princeton University Board of Trustees, which as recently as 2016 had voted to keep Woodrow Wilson's name on the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (photo) and Wilson College, has now voted to change the names of both those campus institutions. 

According to Eisgruber,  "the trustees concluded that Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms." The Board thus altered the previously operative presumption "that names adopted by the trustees after full and thoughtful deliberation … will remain in place, especially when the original reasons for adopting the names remain valid.” 

Taking an iconclastic approach toward the legacies of the past periods whose values were different is problematic at best and ultimately an impoverishment of civilization. I was certainly saddened when the Taliban blew up the pre-islamic 6th-century giant Bamyan Buddhas in 2001 and when ISIS destroyed to pre-Islamic ancient cultural treasures of Palmyra and Mosul. But that is not what we are talking about here. Rather we are considering the presently relevant legacy of a relatively recent historical figure whose beliefs and behavior have adversely affected the history of the past century.

Admittedly. unlike the infamous Confederate monuments erected explicitly to recall the "Lost Cause" and in support of "Jim Crow," Princeton's extravagant honors to its former President were well intentioned at the time and were hardly meant to celebrate slavery or segregation. Naming the School of Public and International Affairs after Wilson was likely an easy call in 1948 at a time when Wilsonian liberalism very much colored the academic and cultural establishment's take on American history and when invoking Wilson's famous dictum "Princeton in the Nation's Service" still resonated without complexity or controversy. Likewise, naming the University's first "residential college" after Wilson was a logical and appropriate acknowledgment of positive aspects of Wilson's efforts during his tenure as the university's president. As President Eisgruber noted, "Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism."

It is, moreover, only fair to acknowledge that "Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today -- including its research excellence and its preceptorial system -- were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership." While I have long been critical of Wilson's World War I intervention and its catastrophic effects on Europe, there is much of his legacy to Princeton that was and remains admirable. We are, after all, complicated creatures - all of us.

That said, still the darker aspects of Wilson's legacy cannot forever be ignored. As President Eisgruber wrote: "Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today."

It is that legacy of long-term harm - both in regard to race (and, I would add, in international relations) that challenges and ultimately undermines that old liberal establishmentarian consensus about Wilson's proper place in our history.

Nor was that consensus ever quite so unanimous as its adherents and promoters believed. 

In 1919 after King George V had met with Wilson at Buckingham Palace,  the king told an aide: “I could not bear him. An entirely cold academical professor – an odious man.”

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