In what can only be characterized as a new low in the university building re-naming mania, Yale University, an alma mater of which I am increasingly embarrassed, has recently seen fit to establish a “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming.” Needless to say, the committee, composed of faculty, alumni and students, has, as a matter of pure demographics, checked all the requisite “diversity” boxes (African-American, Hispanic, Asian, etc.), but it has failed to check the far more basic box of whether or not its fundamental mission would pass the laugh test in a sane society.
One need only take a few seconds to step back from the heat of the cultural moment and reflect upon what Yale is doing to see how utterly absurd and Orwellian the entire enterprise is. Consider the very name, “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming,” which sounds like something Josef Stalin would have come up with while attempting to whitewash Soviet history of references to tsars, saints and that sort of thing. The act of erecting a one-issue litmus test for whitewashing American universities of references to slavery is equally myopic and dystopian. Undoubtedly, those immersed in the committee’s mission would believe the difference is that they are doing the good Lord’s work in furtherance of a just cause, and yet, wouldn’t they have to concede that Soviets visionaries and bureaucrats surely shared that view?
This nation has become obsessed with race, racism, slavery, discrimination and the cancer of regressive, zero-sum, winner-take-all identity politics, with the result that ideologues on the left and right are ensuring Americans are divided, polarized and pitted against each other based on their most superficial identifications. Yale, like many institutions of higher education in America, appears to have lost sight of the fact that part of the mission of an educational institution should be to avoid trend-hopping and to remain above the fray, to stand back from the dust cloud of our present-day turmoil and avail itself of the more nuanced and distanced vantage points conferred by academic disciplines such as history and philosophy, which further deep reflection rather than shallow proclamations and knee-jerk actions. By contrast, a university that is constantly bobbing and weaving in fear as a response to every whim of impulsive students who have not yet acquired the ability to stand back and think is a university that has lost sight of its educational mission. It is a university being run by spineless technocrats and cynical profiteers afraid of losing a few dollars for a few days on account of being branded “racist” in some hysterical student screed, YouTube video, or viral Tweet.
I have no doubt whatsoever that those who act most rashly today will be judged most harshly by history tomorrow. What we need today is not the renaming of buildings but a re-framing of the entire debate so that the question is not under what conditions we should or should not rename buildings, but rather, why it is that we have come to a point in our culture where so many people have become so over-determined by what Max Weber referred to as their “status groups” (races, gender affiliations, sexual proclivities, etc.) that they are blinded to the common good of our society as a whole. We are, to say this another way, in dire need of those who take the long view. To quote Bertrand Russell, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts,” or in Yeats’ memorable words, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” These words, more than ever, are apt characterizations of the dispiriting juncture at which our society and our purported institutions of higher learning have arrived.