Thinking Aloud: What’s in a Name? A Fight for the Past

Nov. 19, 2015 by Darius 

Over the past month, students on college campuses across the US have protested continuing racism. The protests have been sparked by a variety of local incidents and have resulted in few concrete changes or even proposals. At Yale, though, there has been a concrete demand on the part of the protesters: rename Calhoun College. Here’s why Calhoun College should keep its name.

Calhoun College is one of Yale’s residential houses, where some students will reside for at least half of their time at Yale. It is named after 19th century South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, who served at various points as senator, vice president, and secretary of state. Like almost all South Carolinians in politics of during the first half of the 19th century, though, John C. Calhoun was a nasty piece of work when it came to racial issues. He was a leading proponent of slavery and ultimately the political godfather of South Carolina’s secession in 1861, which lit the Civil War.

It’s easy to see why Yale students, especially students descended from slaves, might prefer not to live in a building named after John C. Calhoun. As sensible as it may seem to pick a new name, though, there is a better solution. Keep John C. Calhoun’s name on the building. And in the lobby, construct an exhibit that meticulously details every horrendous thing Calhoun ever said, thought, or wrote. Make the name of Calhoun College not a tribute to John C. Calhoun but rather a permanent documentation of and damnation of his beliefs and actions. At the same time, show how far we’ve come as a society and even how much work we still have ahead of us—a section of the exhibit could cover modern-day racism, whether at Yale, in the US, or around the world.

It would no doubt be easier and cheaper to simply rename Calhoun College. It is a dangerous habit, though, to try to bury what we don’t like about our past or put a more palatable spin on it. (States’ rights? Please.) Try as we may to forget him, John C. Calhoun is a central part of our history. Don’t let the Confederate-flag wavers be the only ones to own him and his story. If, as the pro-Confederate side tends to say, “but it’s just our history,” then let’s examine that history. Let Calhoun College tell the story of that history in all its unpleasant detail. Make it a learning experience. After all, that is the point of higher education.

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