When I graduated in 2017, the topics of history and legacy on campus were already contentious. During my time at Princeton, groups like the Black Justice League had staged protests over the Woodrow Wilson School’s name, claiming that it should not be part of Princeton’s illustrious legacy because it had been stained by the former University president’s political and social views. I disagreed. So, when it came time to choose a quote for the yearbook, I reached for something far less trite than the oft-cited Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“History is a vast early warning system” — Norman Cousins
It is unlikely that any student, alumnus, or even aspirant to a Princeton education would forget the past when it is made readily available. A thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of greater understanding are what drew us to our Orange Bubble, after all. For that reason, discussions of removing or masking the past always sit poorly with me. My concentration was in Intellectual and Cultural Histories, and we were trained to analyze the impact of history on literature and art, as well as the inverse.
I recall, once, during a course on the nature of evil, we had a discussion about whether it was better to scrub the historical record of the names of dictators who encouraged genocide, or to acknowledge their presence each time the topic came forward. The class was split rather evenly — after all, to remove a name from history is to make it so no accomplishments can be discussed, but it also prevents discussion of and accountability for atrocities.
In this case, we have a statue installed barely more than two decades ago on campus, highlighting the legacy of a University president who led Princeton through the founding of our nation. Surely, some might say, we do not need to consider removing it with the same historical weight as we might employ in a discussion regarding the bronze tigers in front of Nassau Hall. I believe each element of our school’s legacy — good, bad, or ugly as they may be — should be displayed proudly, where they can be analyzed, appreciated, or criticized by any who would pass them by.
It is the duty of historians to oppose those who would replace or obscure records of the past, especially at an institution with a reputation as estimable as Princeton’s. Instead of removing names, statues, and whatever comes next, we can add. If the concern is that people will not understand the nuance of the past, then we lay it out plainly for those who are curious enough to engage with knowledge. Where the proposal is to replace Witherspoon’s statue with a plaque, it would be far simpler, and, I propose, far more effective to add one beside the base of Witherspoon’s statue, denoting the complexities of honoring a man who contributed to the University but also upheld an institution we now consider deplorable.
Instead of taking away the speakers that sound the alarm, let us include warnings alongside them. The past holds innumerable lessons if only we will take the time to let it speak.