- UVA Professors Think Quoting Thomas Jefferson is “Problematic”
- Jefferson Founded UVA
- Universities Move to Erase History, Rather Than Teach It
The Left continues its war against freedom of speech by attempting to rewrite college histories. A recent headline in the Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, read: “Professors ask Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson.”
No, you’re not reading The Onion. Unfortunately, that’s not a parody. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan is being criticized for including a quote from Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, in a post-election email intended to calm student anxieties over the outcome of the Presidential election and distributed to students on Nov. 9.
A letter drafted by faculty taking issue with Sullivan’s quote gathered more than 450 signatures. It read in part:
“We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it …. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
University of Virginia Politics Professor Lawrie Balfour signed the letter. Balfour believes it was wrong for Sullivan to quote Jefferson. Balfour told the Cavalier Daily: “I’ve been here 15 years. Again and again, I have found that at moments when the community needs reassurance and Jefferson appears, it undoes I think the really important work that administrators and others are trying to do …. I think we have an opportunity to think about the contradictions that Jefferson embodied,” Balfour continued. “The point is not that he is never appropriate, but the point is that the move that says, he owned slaves, but he was a great man, is deeply problematic, and I think it will continue to prevent us from being the kind of inclusive, respectful community that President Sullivan and the rest of us envision.”
Jefferson’s ownership of slaves discredits his contributions according to critics and works against the goals of building an “inclusive, respectful community.”
A college struggling with rewriting a checkered past is a task not unique to UVA. In the past year, Princeton University discussed the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson – one of the university’s most significant figures – from buildings and school programs. Yale established a committee to decide if it should rename one of its residential colleges, because its namesake (John C. Calhoun) was a racist. At UNC-Chapel Hill, students rallied to change the name of Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall because of the namesake’s heavy involvement with the KKK. The list is long.
Is this whitewashing of history the right thing to do?
Such actions reflect an undeveloped view of history. To discredit Jefferson because he owned slaves is to miss the man’s accomplishments. It is widely known Jefferson was conflicted about slavery. True, he owned slaves. But he also worked for years to end slavery in this country, criticized Britain for its role in the slave trade, and fought with others over wording in the Declaration of Independence to recognize slaves entitled to equality.
Jefferson was a great man, but also a conflicted man. Scrubbing history of flawed men and women will result in a short and incomplete story. True education exposes us to those contradictions and questions and helps us wrestle through the this process.
Those who ask President Sullivan not to quote Jefferson because “it will continue to prevent us from being the kind of inclusive, respectful community” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a university, which is to ask questions, search for truth and knowledge, and transmit what we’ve learned to the next generation. Building a community, though important, is a task that is always in service to those ends, not the goal of them.
To effectively engage in the quest for truth and knowledge, universities should be – in the truest sense – places free from fevered passions, the current Zeitgeist and the prejudices of the present.
Holding an 18th century historical figure to the moral standards and sentiments of a group in 21st century America is fraught with problems. Most will say morality in the West has steadily improved over time. Individual rights, the birth of democracies, and acceptance of the oppressed and minorities has led to a lessening of prejudices. That process took several hundred years.
To say we have a right to rewrite history assumes our society can judge others free from the biases and prejudices of the age. What qualifies us to judge others and what has it done for us to believe our era is free from bias and prejudice?
In an insightful opinion piece on the same subject in the Wall Street Journal, Roger Kimball notes that during the French Revolution, leaders restarted the calendar at zero and renamed months of the year. The Soviets renamed cities, erased the names of political parties that disagreed with them and banned scientific theories that conflicted with Marxist doctrine.
All these actions taken were taken in furtherance of their respective revolutions. We‘d do well to recognize the same here. The Left is doing what it does best: using group identity politics to undermine American culture and institutions. Instead of catering to the latest fads, colleges should stand fast for truth – no matter how offensive. Separating the facts and foolishness of each age is a responsibility over which many universities pontificate but few embrace. Ask those at Virginia, Yale, Princeton and UNC-Chapel Hill.