Should Yale have changed the name of Calhoun College?

Calhoun College

Roy: So prior to the possible re-naming of Calhoun College, what did you know about John Calhoun?


Cam: I would say that I probably had a mid to low level knowledge of him. Just grasping back to memories from history in high school. That being said, the memories that stuck with me were his stances on race. What about you?


Roy: See, I actually first found out about him in elementary school. I grew up in Houston, TX, and they took my whole class out to see a play about major US historical figures. There were obviously artistic liberties that were taken in each character’s interpretation, but I’ll always remember the embarrassment I felt and the anger I had towards the Calhoun character. When slavery was on the discussion table for how they wanted to shape this new country, there was some significant sentiment right there to just go on ahead and abolish it, as the phrase “all men are created equal” was tossed around. But Calhoun was adamant in not signing anything unless slavery was protected. As we know, many others throughout history felt the same, but I’ve known him as THE champion of the degradation of my ancestors since I was a child. It only got worse as school went on.


Cam: Understandable and rightfully so. The man was awful, as were many of the men associated with the founding of our country, so I suppose I should take this time to clarify my stance. It should be abundantly clear that I am not pro-Calhoun, much like people find it important to separate that they are pro-choice and not pro-abortion. My stance is more along the lines of, what precedent does it set for the future if we choose to essentially wipe out this person’s presence at Yale? That covers the “slippery slope” style argument, that I actually can’t stand, so I won’t dwell on it long. The other is simply based in the outlook that erasing him might actually do more harm than good in the long run.


Roy: I’ve thought a lot about these two points as well. First, in reading President Salovey’s reasoning for changing the name, he cited something Benjamin Silliman Sr. wrote about Calhoun at around the same historical time saying:

“[Calhoun] in a great measure changed the state of opinion and the manner of speaking and writing upon this subject in the South, until we have come to present to the world the mortifying and disgraceful spectacle of a great republic—and the only real republic in the world—standing forth in vindication of slavery, without prospect of, or wish for, its extinction. If the views of Mr. Calhoun, and of those who think with him, are to prevail, slavery is to be sustained on this great continent forever.”

So all of my childhood images of the man were somewhat reaffirmed, even in the same general time period. But as far as the legacy of Calhoun, I still believe the lifetime works and even achievements of the man should be something that’s still taught. He may have been the champion, but he clearly wasn’t the only one who thought in this way. When we examine the major figures in the country of the time period John C. Calhoun lived, he will rightfully be taught and talked about.

The naming of a residential college after him, however, is a continuing legacy that is not only remembered, but honored. I’ll actually always remember how I felt when I put 2 and 2 that the college I was currently sitting in to have lunch was named after the same man. I instantly prayed a quick thank you that I wasn’t placed in this college, because I was instantly made severely uncomfortable. This man has demonstrated that if it were up to him, I would never be welcome on that campus. Slavery was one of the most important drivers for the success of our young nation, so there will always be aspects of slaveowners’ legacies that will be immobile and unavoidable. However, I know that I wasn’t the only one to experience the same anguish upon learning who it was that our school was continuing to honor, long after we as a race have fought long and hard to push back against what that man stood for. So for those reasons, and for it being universally accepted that Calhoun was the epitome of hardship and maintaining those disparities, the choice made sense to me.


Cam: The choice has always made sense to me. But (and I warned you there was going to be the slippery slope argument), where do we stop? For instance, like I said, Calhoun was covered in depth for me in high school, so when I walked on campus and saw that a residential college was named after him, I immediately filed that knowledge into one of the open spaces in my head that I have reserved for things like this. Like every time I use a nickel, there’s a slave owner on my currency. Not only that, the man’s house used to be on the back, so I also had the reminder of where he kept his slaves. The slave quarters are still preserved if you go to visit Monticello. It’s for a reason. Almost like a big, “hey, this guy was integral in the founding of our country, but don’t forget, he was also a slave owning hypocrite who claimed all men are created equal.” Once we start the process of eliminating these names, where do we stop? Do we rename the Jefferson Memorial? Do we carve Obama’s face over Washington’s and Jefferson’s on Mount Rushmore to remind the people that the ideas of slavery have officially become antiquated? I’m not afraid to admit that I find it a much more powerful reminder of what happened and how far we’ve come when the edifices and names are still there for us to see. The alternative I had in mind isn’t applicable anymore given the fact that the decision has already been made, but perhaps we could’ve given incoming freshman placed in Calhoun the ability to opt out and have other students take their spots. Sit them down, have a discussion when they arrive about why the name remains and how that might make them feel. Those emotions are good to confront and be honest about. That conversation can’t happen now. The realization that even you yourself had while eating in the dining room doesn’t happen either. But I would argue it was a necessary realization to have in the grand scheme of things. It helps take off the rose colored lenses.


Roy: I think the difference is for me is that we aren’t erasing anyone from history. On the subject of buildings with names on them, we’re talking a disproportionate amount of very rich and very powerful White men. If you dig enough into anyone’s history, let alone that particular demographic, you’re going to find a lot that you won’t like in the context of the values we hold in 2017. What I’m not advocating is a nationwide background check to rename every building and erase every single trace of a person whose values I don’t necessarily jibe with. What we’re talking about here is current. Yale has been around since the early 1700’s, but has had to continue to reinvent itself as a modern educational institution for current students. The reality of the situation with this particular person is that he’s interpreted of having views that surpass even those of his equally racist and terrible peers. In a room full of slave owners and racists, he stands head-and-shoulders above them all, such that it’s now become his legacy. A campus full of intelligent and well-read students understand the times, and enough have decided that honoring this particular individual significantly detracts from their experience as students, prospective students, or alumni. The reality is that I know most of the men on my currency wouldn’t have appreciated me, but their legacies are different, so I’m just honestly less affected by their wrongs. Maybe someday there will be another evil that we don’t see as such a wrong in today’s standard. If it’s negatively affecting people in that future time such that they stand out above the rest, I would say then that it’s safe to remove them as well. I don’t see these actions affecting more than a few historical artifacts at a time.


Cam: Isn’t honoring in some sense up to the people? Just because someone’s name is on a building and that person did terrible things doesn’t mean that I honor him. Nor should it mean that any person, especially the free-thinking and open minded students currently at Yale, or the alumni, should be forced to honor that person. Women and minorities go through this practice all the time. I would equate it to hearing something wildly ignorant and compartmentalizing it. Even outside of women and minorities, people do this with other people that they just simply don’t like. Maybe you hated the movie that ends up winning the Oscar for best picture, it doesn’t mean you have to go around touting that movie as the best movie of that year because the Academy deemed it such. The problems that lie within having the name remain should be overt, and that should create a place where one is fully aware that they don’t have to celebrate it; people were obviously already taking that upon themselves. You can absolutely call the world on its bullshit, but that doesn’t mean that the world has to, or will cater to you.


Roy: But everything including the faculty it hires, the students it accepts, and the art decorated around campus has to fit the CURRENT values of the institution. Tradition is clearly one of the values, so vestiges of past times will always be a part of Yale and part of its prestige. But if a negative value (a legacy of racism) of some part of Yale’s singular mission (to be the best and most complete educational institution) outweighs the positive values (tradition) the math doesn’t add up, and it’s time to make an appropriate change to keep the enterprise that is Yale on its mission’s path. It was deemed that this particular negative value reached a level to actually override what it brought in tradition and I’m sure endowment from the Calhoun estate. That’s why I’m at peace with it. I don’t think other negativities and bullshit that people put up with reach that same critical mass.


Cam: I feel like we’ve whittled the issue down to an overall face-saving measure then. Yes, the other negativities and bullshit that people put up with do not reach the same critical mass. But, isn’t this only considered critical mass because it’s Yale? And Yale has donors and a reputation that it wishes to keep in good standing for reasons that we may not know. Think about Jeff Sessions and his past history. Yes, I’m sure Jeff Sessions would love to simply claim that his past shortcomings were the “old him,” and that’s no longer what he stands for, but does that make the current him any better? It would seem to some people that it doesn’t. A great number of people in fact, look at Sessions as trying to save face because he has a position he wants to hold. You can’t just say, “you know what, this is the new me, so I’m going to eliminate some of the poor decisions I’ve made.” I’d rather see Yale own up to the mistakes of the past, leave them as a reminder, and move forward.


Roy: The difference, I think, is that Yale is not a museum. Yes, it sure tries to be to a certain degree, and there are obviously museum-like aspects to the institution. So there’s less obligation in my opinion to constantly remember parts of history that significantly upset people. John Calhoun’s involvement with the university will be less highlighted obviously, but it won’t be erased. I think understanding the contents of the annals of Yale’s history should always be taught and easily accessible. But with the residential college concept of being very much a second identity to what it means to be a Yale College student. I don’t see the value of remembering a dark side of Yale’s history to outweigh what students have had to experience and would have continued to experience and that is being tied to a man that most despise. We all collectively have to endure the legacies of the people we may not appreciate, but in this case, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to uphold them in the same way.


Cam: Given the liberal nature of the university, I have no doubt that Calhoun’s legacy will be taught and accessible, but the ease with which that will be done, I believe, is severely diminished with the decision that was made. However, President Salovey did say this:

“We will develop a plan to memorialize the fact that Calhoun was a residential college name for eighty-six years. Furthermore, alumni of the college may continue to associate themselves with the name Calhoun College or they may choose to claim Grace Hopper College as their own. As the Witt report states, “A university ought not erase the historical record. But a great university will rightly decide what to commemorate and what to honor, subject always to the obligation not to efface the history that informs the world in which we live.”

Very well said, as are most things that President Salovey utters, but my one stipulation is the university deciding what to commemorate and what to honor. That lies with the people who learn from the world they live in. Greater institutions will always have their own personal outlooks, but just because we are associated with those institutions doesn’t mean we have to honor those same things. Yale isn’t a monolith, nor are minorities, or women, or athletes, or theoretical physicists. But, we must tread softly. If we don’t remember these differences and keep them at the forefront of our minds, we might find ourselves in a battle of what is fact and what is an alternative fact. I would never want to see Yale simply deny that experience and truth for new students to have as you once did.


Roy: I agree, I’ll just add that Yale is in the business of experiences. Ultimately they want to create the best environment possible for its students. However, once we start heading towards erasing actual history and creating “alternative facts” we need to make sure to head right around to the other direction.

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