We have previously discussed how students and faculty are stripping away the names and quotations of Founding Fathers and presidents from schools because they were slave owners or due to proven prejudices or biases. I have been critical of the trend at schools like Princeton where the faculty and students have discussed the removal of the name and images of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from buildings and school programs under a deal signed with protesters who objected to Wilson’s support of segregation, which was legal at the time. The move adjacent Wilson who is credited as one of Princeton’s most important figures and past presidents was shocking to many academics. Now, the University of Virginia is experiencing the same debate with its founder, Thomas Jefferson. University President Teresa Sullivan is under fire for simply quoting Jefferson in an email to students and faculty on the presidential election. Faculty have written her a letter denouncing any use of any quotation by Jefferson due to his ownership of slaves.
In her email, Sullivan encouraged students to come together after the election and added
“Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes’ . . . I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.”
Some professors in the Psychology Department and other departments were shocked by the quotation of Jefferson, even at the University of Virginia. Asst. Psychology Prof. Noelle Hurd drafted the letter that some 469 students and faculty signed. It stated 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.”
Among the signatories were Politics Prof. Nicholas Winter, Psychology Prof. Chad Dodson, Women, Gender and Sexuality Prof. Corinne Field, College Assistant Dean Shilpa Davé, and Politics Prof. Lynn Sanders.
Politics Professor Lawrie Balfour (right) explained that Jefferson is viewed by many as a consistent detriment to nurturing a supportive environment at Virginia: “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 respect the motivations of faculty like Professor Balfour but I have to disagree with their conclusions. I do not agree that barring quotations from the drafter of our Declaration of Independence and one of the most influential American thinkers advances an educational purpose. Historical figures are not perfect humans and slavery is rightfully viewed as a disgraceful part of the history of many of our founders. We can learn from those terrible institutions just as we can learn from their other contributions. Understanding history demands such perspective.
Jefferson is a particularly interesting case study on slavery. He was one of the most conflicting founders on the subject. Jefferson spent much of his life trying to rid the country of slavery (an advanced view for his time) but he also kept hundreds of individuals under the bondage of slavery. He inherited dozens of slaves and acquired more through his marriage to Martha Wayles. Yet, he was a critic of Britain for its role in the colonial slave trade and was key in banning the importation of slaves to his native Virginia. He sought to criminalize the slave trade and fought with other Southerners on the wording of the Declaration of Independence over the recognition of slaves as people entitled to equality. His relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, adds to this conflicted history.
From the perspective of his time, Jefferson was viewed as a progressive on the subject, if not a heretic, by his white contemporaries. In the end, however, scrubbing history of quotations and references to people like Jefferson is to ignore both his accomplishments and his failings. Professor Balfour insists that she is not saying that any quotations from Jefferson was inappropriate but 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.” I would submit that he was a great man but a deeply flawed man. Education is recognizing and understanding such contradictions.
What do you think?