I have spent more than half my life educating young men and women, years when I worked with minds that were just opening to the possibility of a life bigger than anything they had yet experienced. I rejoiced to think what they might become, those still raw adolescents. Alumni reunions sometimes astonish me and sometimes leave me still hoping. But I am losing faith in the next generation. Why?
Our Founding Fathers are much in the Broadway news; HAMILTON and now 1776, revived. As ecstatic audiences sing about them and refound our country with them, from our university centers come the voices of those who wish to rewrite history by renaming buildings and removing statuary. Does that change anything?
I always hope that we are learning from past mistakes. I will never defend the anomaly of Thomas Jefferson’s writing about freedom and equality for all while he remained a slave holder. John Calhoun fits a similar pattern in a later period. We could name many more , but we cannot change what those men did and thought. We are left with the puzzle of evolving thinking about both society and the actions of men and women two hundred plus years ago.
We cannot remove the memory of their actions by removing them from our money or the pages of our history books. We can learn some very important truths that they did not know, and that is of far greater value than trying to forget that they were. As energies go into petitions and letters to the Board, have the same young minds considered that Columbus would have been more accurate with a GPS and that the South really thought its structure would collapse if all slaves were removed from the cotton fields of the 1850s. One of these is an anachronism and the other a painful economic lesson that had to be learned.
Perhaps all I am saying is that hindsight is always 20/20. The Founding Fathers were far from perfect people, as are we. I would love it if the campus protesters would put some of that energy into seminars and discussions about the eras that produced those they are criticizing, so that these same protesters do not become the object of a future generation’s scorn in their turn.