Wednesday, November 25, 2015

False Idols: Woodrow Wilson and Hero Worship

Woodrow Wilson as President
at Princeton University
Spurred by events in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina, racially charged protests have broken out at college campuses across the United States, most notably at the University of Missouri, where the involvement of the entire football team surely contributed to the resignation of the school's president. This week the protests have come to dear old Princeton University.

The Princeton controversy revolves around perhaps the most favored of all of Princeton's favorite sons - Woodrow Wilson. Before Wilson became the 28th President of the United States, he was the president of Princeton University. He is credited with many good works at Princeton including raising educational standards, creating academic majors and introducing small-group classes. Princeton has recognized his contributions by naming the highly regarded Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs after him, naming a residential complex Wilson College and hanging a mural of him in the dining hall. To attend Princeton is to think Wilson, see Wilson and praise Wilson

Wilson's accomplishments as President of the US are well documented. In addition to leading the country during World War 1 and proposing the United Nations predecessor, The League of Nations, Wilson had an impressive record as a progressive Democrat who championed many of the causes of the working man including the progressive income tax and the Federal Trade Act that controlled unfair business practices. 

What is not so well documented, however, is that Wilson was also a virulent racist. It is his racism that is at issue on the Princeton campus, where students, under the umbrella of the Black Student League, have occupied the office of university president, Christopher Eisgruber, demanding, among other things, that the institution publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism, that Wilson's name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, and that the dining room mural of Wilson be removed. The students seem to be asking why they should be inundated with reminders of a person who considered them to be inferior beings.

It is important to note here that Wilson's racism was extreme even for 100 years ago. He made statements sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, actively blocked black students from attending Princeton, permitted the re-institution of segregation in federal agencies, fired black officials and replaced them with whites and generally considered blacks to be inferior. This quote sums up Wilson's attitude, "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place is in the corn field." 

Some people seem to regard this controversy as a tempest in a teapot; just another example of political correctness gone mad. Does it really matter that Wilson, a product of his times and his upbringing, was a racist? Are we just caving in to special interests if we change the names of buildings and schools? When does it stop. Do we rename John F. Kennedy Airport because naughty JFK slept around? I think it is more complicated than that. The image and name of Wilson is a symbol on the Princeton campus and symbols have power. If the Confederate flag were hanging in the Princeton dining hall, I am sure most could agree that it was offensive. For African American students especially, but for that matter any thoughtful student, I think the image of Wilson could be just as problematic.

I think one of the problems in schools is that we tend to whitewash our heroes, not allowing any breath of imperfection to sully a reputation lest these heroes seem somehow less heroic. I remember a book from a few years back entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me. The book chronicled the misinformation we often perpetuate in our schools in order to make our history less damning. These things can be as innocuous as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or as injurious as the myth of American exceptionalism perpetrated in many textbooks. The truth is we should not need our heroes to be perfect and we should not perpetuate myths of their perfection. The question is ultimately not whether a school or building should be named after Woodrow Wilson, but why his documented racism has been kept so far under wraps that this legacy was not a part of the conversation.

I think the protesting students have a point. Certainly, the institution needs to publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism as apart of a more complex and thoughtful examination of the man. Renaming schools and buildings may not be viable or even desirable, but I don't think anyone should have to eat in a dining hall under the picture of someone who worked to make sure they were never admitted to the university. 

In 1958 in my hometown of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the local school board decided to name the new high school under construction after the great scientist and "father of the atomic bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was an eminent scholar, and as a leader of the Manhatten Project, a World War II hero. Oppenheimer seemed like a great guy to name a school after. However, anti-communist fervor was still rampant in the country, and when it was discovered that Oppenheimer had lost his security clearance with the government as part of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, a hue and cry came up from the community and Oppenheimer's name was removed from the school. What name was chosen in its place? Woodrow Wilson High School. 

So a great scientist who was falsely suspected of being a commie was replaced by a documented racist and the people of Levittown were okay with that. Perhaps those folks could plead ignorance in 1958, but it is education's mission to eradicate ignorance. The protesters in Princeton have, if nothing else, awakened the country to the dark side of one of its heroes. Ultimately, that is a good thing.