History always needs to be viewed from the perspective of those who experienced it, actually lived it. That does not mean layer upon layer of continual context can not be applied to a person or topic under discussion. But it is most unreasonable to use our hindsight and then apply modern judgments to those who lived many, many generations before.
By looking at history from the perspective of those who lived it we in no way lend approval to practices or mores that are now illegal, offensive, or socially unacceptable. The point is if we are to learn from history we need to first understand it. And the best way to do so is to place ourselves, as best we can, into the shoes of others from the past.
I have made my views most clear on the need to remove Confederate statues, as the attempt to destroy a government and undo the Union was treasonous, and must not be honored in any way. The revulsion of slavery is most clear, but the fact an effort was made to cause the destruction to the republic must never be found acceptable, either.
I have been adamant that Tom Sawyer and other books not be removed from libraries or denied use in classrooms. Confronting words, and knowing the power they hold, in and of itself is a lesson. Learning from texts that make us squirm is also educational.
I have held my ‘pen’ as it were, when it came to the issue of the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of International Affairs. I am certainly aware of the racism that Wilson held within him, and exhibited in troubling ways over the time he held the highest office in the land. I am also much aware that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and yet reached the heights of idealism with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. If we were to remove the names or statues of all the ones who held competing ideas, or take down all the references of those who could be offered as the epitome of duality, there would be a wide-open space in many locations. And we would find we had lost far more than gained.
Human beings have, within the same person, the capacity to be both broad-minded and intelligent while at the same time being narrow-minded and troubled. I would offer Wilson as one such example.
Today in The Wall Street Journal there was an extraordinarily concise and perfectly stated letter that struck the way I feel about this matter. A family from Egypt, a new college student to Princeton, and the reason we must think more critically as we continue to confront these issues were found in just a few paragraphs. I very much appreciate the national dialogue from serious-minded people on this large topic, whether they agree with me or not. The fact we are having such conversations is far better than the mindless violence. Since there is a paywall to this newspaper I take the liberty of making a photo of the article I wish my readers to ponder over.
As a lover of history, I conclude this post with a photo from the National Cathedral with the sarcophagus of President Woodrow Wilson. His wife, Edith, is also buried in the floor alongside him.