By Winfield Myers
July 21, 2005
Vanderbilt University’s efforts to prove its cosmopolitanism by shedding a key vestige of what its leaders see as an embarrassingly Southern past have come to naught.
After spending three years and thousands of alumni-donated dollars in an effort to force the hand of the subversives at the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Vandy abandoned plans to sand blast the word "Confederate" from the frieze of Confederate Memorial Hall, a stately structure built in 1935 from UDC donations. (In literature and maps, however, the C-word has been dropped.) Responding to a suit by the UDC, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that, absent refunding the plaintiff the 2005 equivalent of their original $50,000 donation, the inscription had to stay. But inflation proved even better than Confederate money, and the million-dollar price tag was too much for University Chancellor Gordon Gee to hand over to an organization whose membership overlaps with the United Methodist Women and numerous golf and garden clubs.
"You can’t erase pages of history just because a lot of bad things happened," Deanna R. Bryant, president of the UDC’s Tennessee Division, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Miss Bryant might have been more accurate had she said "shouldn’t" for "can’t," since erasing history is an old and, in some quarters, honorable practice. From the Roman historian Tacitus’ politicization of his account of the Germans, in which the barbarians exemplified the virtues so absent among his supposedly civilizedcountrymen,toJean Jacques Rousseau’s evocation of the noble savage as the moral antidote to his corrupt Continental contemporaries, to Soviet photo brushing and Japanese whitewashing in our own day, history has been employed as a weapon in contemporary intellectual and cultural battles.
What sets the Vanderbilt case apart is the effort to literally blast away part of the institution’s history lest modern sensibilities be offended. What is it about the engraved frieze of an aging building that anyone might find so threatening? Is the use of the word "Confederate" really so offensive that failure to blast it from one campus’s architectural history is an aggressive act against minorities, in particular, and all decent people, in general?
Leaving for others the arguments over the Civil War’s causes and effects, what is most disturbing about Vanderbilt’s original scheme is the underlying belief that the past is merely a weapon in contemporary culture wars, putty in our hands to be shaped according to our desires.
Are you offended by some segment of human history? Who isn’t? Do historical reminders of some events, persons or ideas make you uncomfortable? Of course. Would our world be happier if the past was different; if wars, injustices, and offenses hadn’t occurred? Naturally.
But what of it? Efforts to create a utopian past, lest we take umbrage with our ancestors, are as futile and as dangerous as attempts to create a utopian present. Tens of millions died in the last century for ideologies that preached the malleability, and hence the perfectibility, of human nature. If George Orwell was correct when he wrote in "1984" that "Those who control the past, control the future; and those who control the present, control the past," then the price for allowing the triumph of a historiography that borrows more heavily from Lenin than from honest historians is too high for any democracy to pay.
Some may argue that obtaining control of the past is a grand and unworkable plan. After all, as historians have asked before, who owns the past? The short answer is: those who write it.
Absent sustained, sincere and rigorous efforts to present any nation’s or individual’s past forthrightly, the intergenerational conversation that is historical debate becomes artificial, stilted and propagandistic. This is true for research and writing based on manuscript collections, letters, public records, works in myriad fields — for the primary sources that historians draw on to craft a vision of how those who came before us lived, what they thought, and why they acted as they did. It’s also true of our physical past, of the remains of those who preceded us. Whether these artifacts are recovered by archaeologists or maintained by historic preservationists, they are a priceless repository of the human experience. It’s why we value old structures and why we support museums.
To join this conversation is to become part of a greater dialogue that, over the centuries, shapes our perceptions of who we are as a people, a civilization and a world. But to deny the past, even to the point of physically expunging the historical record from academic buildings, is to engage in a destructive folly to scrub history in the search for a more perfect future.
What Vanderbilt attempted was indeed intellectually myopic. But more importantly, it was a violation of our obligations to our descendants — and to our ancestors, whoever and wherever they were, to keep the conversation going from one generation to the next.
© 2005 News World Communications, Inc.