Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Wilson: the Nomen and the Omen

When in 1969 Robert Goheen sent me down to Wilcox Hall to as Master of Wilson College he offered a few sage precepts of a general nature useful to an educational administrator of however lowly rank.  The first was: Don’t ever think you’re more than about eighty percent right.  In last week’s post, bemoaning Princeton’s hasty, ill-considered change of college “Master” to college “Head,” I actually felt that I was at about ninety-seven.  I feel a few points less certain in opposing the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from two Princeton institutions, the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College.  That’s because while there is no racism in the phrase college master—none—there was a good deal of it in Wilson.  Unfortunately, furthermore, I’ll need a word-length extension to talk about it.

Woodrow Wilson was a highly consequential President of the United States at a crucial historical moment.  His internationalism challenged traditional American insularity.  In broadly based polls of “best and worst” presidents, professional historians have over decades consistently rated him as high as number four and rarely lower than number ten.  He was a Princeton alumnus, a Princeton professor, the President of Princeton, then continued, as Governor of New Jersey, as ex officio Trustee of Princeton.  He articulated the ideal of “Princeton in the nation’s service.”  That’s a lot of “Princeton,” enough to explain the attachment of his name to Princeton’s school of public and international affairs.  However, spearheaded by a black pressure group, many sincere students are now demanding that other background be discussed.  The man was a racist whose actual implemented policies inflicted palpable harm on black Americans, re-enforced racial segregation, and stunted the hopeful rise of a black middle class.

For purposes of economy I leave further discussion of the Wilson School to its faculty, students, and alumni.  My concern here is with Wilson College, and therefore with Wilson as a thinker about undergraduate education.   Wilson wanted to implement two revolutionary educational plans at Princeton.  The first was the “preceptorial system”, in which undergraduates worked in a quasi-tutorial relationship with their teachers.  The second was the “Quad Plan,” which proposed to exploit the educational potential of the residence halls by reorganizing them into a modified version of Oxbridgian colleges.  (Both of these revolutionary ideas were about six hundred years old at the time.)  The first caught fire.  The second, after sparking much initial enthusiasm, succumbed to the powerful opposition associated with the Prospect Street dining clubs, which still held campus social life within the iron jaws of their vise of malign monopoly.  When in the early years of the Goheen presidency student activists successfully agitated for a viable alternative to the clubs, the Woodrow Wilson Society, later Wilson College, was born as a conscious rebuke to social exclusivity and a concrete monument to inclusivity.  Wilson College was the pioneer of the model that now defines underclass life at Princeton.  Five of Princeton’s residential colleges were named for generous alumni donors, but its first college was named for the man whose educational ideas inspired the others. 

I never heard the term “safe space” in those years, but the nascent Wilson College’s historical role was incontrovertibly that of a magnet (and for some perhaps a haven) for students who considered themselves uncomfortable with, disrespected by, superior to, or simply different from the once large majority of their classmates who “bickered” for admission to selective clubs.  This group included, but was not limited to, intellectuals, political radicals, poets and painters, unjocks, blacks, and feminists.

If you think, as I do, that the college system has played a beneficent and transformational role in our institutional history, you may feel less inclined toward hasty historical vandalism.  What do I mean by historical vandalism?  Perhaps the most famous photograph of Lenin is one that captures him on a wooden platform in impassioned oratory.  What makes it so famous, however, is what is not there in its second edition: Leon Trotsky, standing at the foot of the podium.  Soviet photographic technicians became expert at erasing history that displeased their boss.  Zealots in all periods, and always well-intentioned in their own eyes, have been good at this sort of thing: smashing church windows, blowing up Buddhas, removing books from libraries, or simply burning them.

before and after consciousness-raising

During the past week, in which the Wilson fracas has been much discussed, I have learned a lot I did not previously know about the extent of Woodrow Wilson’s racism, but of course the story’s gist has been long known.  That a successful leader of the Democratic Party in the first decades of the twentieth century would be a racist is not exactly what you could call a news flash.  In this regard I remember a conversation with my immediate successor as Master of Wilson—the historian Henry Drewry.  “Well, Master Drewry,” I said with a facetious formality, “What do you think President Wilson would have to say?”  “Well,” Henry replied in his soft southern voice, “I would hope that even a president is not immune to the beneficial changes wrought by education.  But it doesn’t much matter.  It’s our college now, not his.”


Master Henry Drewry (1924-2014)

At a time when our national politics seem spent and petty and the national mood sour and fearful, I look with hope to our young citizens.  The undergraduate population of our colleges, like the general population, may seem a bewildering mixture; but you will find there large reservoirs of fierce intelligence, competence, physical and moral energy, and patriotic idealism.  What one cannot expect to find is much matured historical perspective.

            Does any alumnus of the place, hearing the words “Wilson College”, think first of a long defunct politician named Woodrow?  No.  Like me, they think of a community, a local habitation with a name, which they loved or hated or simply experienced, in which they lived and strove during formative years of their youth.  We did learn a few years ago, when Master Cadava invited the student founders back to a moving event marking the place’s fiftieth birthday, how many hold the place in affection, and how lively still is the memory of the idealistic aspirations that then animated them.  I do agree there is rather a lot of Woodrow at Princeton.  We have thousands of consequential alumni, yet any tour of our buildings reveals a necessary emphasis on the political/commercial over the artistic/spiritual.  College presidents, like bank robbers, have to go where the money is.  The new Lewis Center for the Arts bears the name of a brilliant visionary and awesomely generous man, who was, however, not an artist but an insurance magnate.   But the student consciousness of the Woodrow part of Wilson College in my time was sufficiently hazy that Sean Wilentz and I once had a semi-serious plan to render the place Edmund Wilson (Class of 1916) College by silent onomastic putsch.

            Wilson College, like other living institutions, negotiates spiritual continuity and physical change.  The large offending photographic mural of President Wilson throwing out the first baseball of the season was not there in my years, and I know not whence it came.  I do like it, because the President is smiling.  Most photographs of the man suggest that he had just then emerged from root canal work or is even now experiencing a sigmoidoscopy.  But so far as I am concerned, the decoration of a dining room is an indifferent matter that ought to be left (within fiscal constraints) to those who dine there.

            But, please, think this “name thing” through.  One of the two most prestigious alumni awards we have is the Woodrow Wilson Award.  Its bestowal honors not its name but the stunning achievements of extraordinary alumni in the spirit of "the nation's service."   Among the greatest historical enterprises ever undertaken on this campus was the publication, in more than sixty volumes, of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson.  The small fortune those books have made for the Princeton University Press allowed the luxury of publishing some obscure worst-sellers of my own.  The principal editor, our late colleague Arthur Link, was twice awarded the Bancroft Prize for his work on Wilson.  The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is wholly independent of the University, but it is a neighbor.  A whole generation of famous professors of the Golden Age of American Humanities went through graduate school on its largesse.  It has since then worked effectively to advance the minority presence in higher education.

The most prestigious prep school in France (as in Liberté-Égalité-Fraternité) is the Lycée Louis le Grand (as in L’État-c’est-moi).   A once eminent Princeton historian, R. R. Palmer, documented its history during the Revolution, when it underwent name changes on a regular basis only to return, when the fever quelled, to Louis-le-Grand, where such politically sensitive young republicans as Hugo, Péguy, and Sartre weathered the daily micro-aggressions of its portals unscathed.

            While indignant students were sitting in at Nassau Hall, Ruth Simmons was delivering one of the “Signature Series” lectures for which Wilson College under Eduardo Cadava has become prominent.  Dr. Simmons, a Princeton trustee, a former Princeton administrator, and a former President of Smith College and Brown University, is among the very most distinguished leaders of American higher education today.  You can experience the lecture, as I did, on-line.  Part of the talk was about the issues she faced as Brown’s President when attention was drawn to the fact that among her institution’s founding family of Browns was a prominent slave trader.  She led her campus through a fascinating and sometimes wrenching process of self-discovery that—as its aims were substantive, not cosmetic—did not involve changing the name of the university.  I had many reactions to her talk, one of which was huge relief, as we enter an age of high-minded Inquisition, that Princeton has the good luck to bear the name of a town, rather than that of a person.  “Use every man after his desert,” says Hamlet, “and who should 'scape whipping?”  John Harvard?  Elihu Yale?  James (cough) Duke?  I even fear for my Oxford alma mater: Jesus College.


  1. A wonderful read, thank you. And thanks to Stan Katz for referring me.

    I’m sure I’m not done reading commentary on this, but so far I have been consistently struck by what might be called arrogance: Commenters seem to feel completely qualified to assess the degree of harm or offense that the persistence of Wilson’s name causes (when he or she is not a member of the group that is allegedly harmed).

    That’s why I’m looking forward to listening to Brian Lehrer’s interview with Eddie Glaude that my father tipped me off to:

    And the Ruth Simmons lecture you refer to.

    All of a sudden I’m looking forward to the treadmill tonight!

    I also was interested to learn about Wilson’s "conscious rebuke to social exclusivity and a concrete monument to inclusivity.”

    And it does explain why, as I always suspected, the “Wilson College” is still more fun than the others!

    - Aron Goldman, WWS 2001

    1. Is it arrogant to, say, propose legislation against crimes of which one has not been victim? And set penalties for those crimes? Do we not have education precisely to spare us the necessity of experiencing everything before we may form an opinion of it? And is it not arrogant to assume every member of your "group" has the same reaction to a given stimulus? Wouldn't that be racism?

      This blog is such a breath of fresh air.

      (But, dear Professor, according to the league tables, Louis le Grand is not today considered quite as prestigious as Henri IV.)