Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What about John Adams?

Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe has a hilarious column on the Winthrop House story. John Adams defended British soldiers who opened fire on American rebels. Should he have lost his Harvard library privileges?

It is never a good idea to read the comments on newspaper pieces, but I couldn't resist. Leaving the trolls aside, it's amazing how self-righteous and humorless some of them are. Weinstein, as one comment and many previous opinions have argued, is entitled to a lawyer. But anybody could have defended him, so Sullivan should have turned him down. But the whole point of the column was to force the question of whether Adams should have turned down the British soldiers. I have never heard it said that he was the only one who would take them on.

At the same time, a new task force has been announced, the Working Group on Symbols and Spaces at Harvard College, to be chaired by the estimable Professor Ali Asani. The interview is quite abstract, so it is hard to tell where this project is going. There is a nice reminder of the importance of the randomization of the Houses that occurred almost 25 years ago, pursuant to a recommendation of a faculty committee I co-chaired. In part the discourse seems to be about re-asserting the mission of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations; its future has been somewhat in doubt since the death of its remarkable founding director, Allen Counter. So that is all to the good too.

And I wonder how far this example goes:
 It is natural for these students who are discovering facets of their ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial identity as part of the College experience to want to explore those facets within affinity groups. 
Was gender intentionally omitted from that list, lest it suggest that women should not be punished for getting together with other women off-campus? On the other hand, the interview goes on to say,
We see people are retreating into their own communities, engaging only with people like themselves. We can see such tendencies on campus. For example, the central concern regarding final clubs were policies that led to certain students excluding other students from their social networks, determining who belonged and who did not.
This sounds to me like another revision of the history, or at least a very different emphasis on a matter for which the University has offered a variety of explanations. The trouble with this argument -- that the decision was about social exclusivity, as opposed to the idea that it was all about either sexual assault or gender exclusion -- is that no one ever showed any data documenting what the ethnic or social demography of the Final Clubs was today. At best, the University would from time to time fall back, without evidence, on the implication that they were all full of Hornblowers and Wigglesworths as they allegedly were in the nineteenth century, just hiding places for those damned Puritans we excised from Fair Harvard. I am pretty sure that is not what they look like today. And of course, the sororities were never socially exclusive, so if that is the revisionist argument, maybe the committee can rethink the decision.

In the worst case, the committee will spend its time on the discomfort students are said to experience because of the presence at Harvard of buildings with objectionable names, or speakers with objectionable views or histories. If that is where the committee chooses to go, Cullen has given it quite a list of cases to consider. Is it time to rename Stoughton Hall? After all, who would want to live in a building named in honor of the judge who cruelly sent the innocent Salem "witches" to their graves?

1 comment:

  1. Renaming buildings named after people who send innocent witches to their graves. Hmm. I can't tell if thats
    (1) satire
    (2) being considered
    (3) actually a good idea.

    When I was a Harvard Grad students the houses had reputations, though I didn't know if they were true. They were based on fields of student- like Dunster was a math house. I didn't think of it as being a good or bad thing. But prob good to have more diversity of all sorts in the houses-- I am glad that as an ugrad (SUNY Stonybrook) my dorm had all kinds of majors.