I grew up in Colorado. When I tell people this, they usually make some reference to its natural beauty, its ski resorts, or the possibility of legally purchasing marijuana there for recreational purposes. The associations that most people have with Colorado are, thus, not historical in nature. Even as I think about it now, I have trouble thinking of a major historical figure or event associated with Colorado. It is not a place with much of a history.
In this respect, my place of origin differs from that of my friend, who grew up in Athens (Greece, not Georgia). When people think of Athens, I suspect most people do think of its history: it is, after all, the place where democracy was born, where Sophocles’ “Antigone” was first performed, and where Socrates asked a few too many uncomfortable questions. This difference between my friend’s place of origin and mine is not merely abstract. If one goes to Athens today one can still see remnants of Pericles’ Golden Age on the Acropolis, along with a host of other landmarks from all different eras of Greece’s rich history. In my hometown, by contrast, one is hardpressed to find a structure that is over a hundred years old, let alone 800 or 2400.
The difference between my friend and me in this regard is representative of the difference between Americans and Europeans in general. Americans as such do not have much of a history. The two hundred or so years that the United States has been an independent country are but a blip compared to the thousands of years of recorded Greek history. And while not all European countries have a history as well-documented as Greece’s, practically all of them can trace their origins back much further than America can. It may be irrational of me, but I’ve often been slightly envious of Europeans for this reason. I think there’s something valuable about being able to locate oneself within a long cultural and historical tradition, and I feel that this is something that I, as an American, am not able to do in a very meaningful way.
It is perhaps for this reason that I was somewhat disappointed to learn of the push to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School. Princeton may not have as long a history as Oxford or the Sorbonne, but it is a place with a considerable amount of history and Woodrow Wilson was a major part of that history. To the extent that changing the Woodrow Wilson School’s name would mean erasing that part of its history, I think it is a bad idea. This is not to say that I disagree with those who point out that Woodrow Wilson held a variety of abhorrent views and even did some abhorrent things in his capacity as president, first of the University and then of the nation. These things are true and it may even be true that Woodrow Wilson does not deserve to be honored. But I don’t think that preserving the name of the Woodrow Wilson School is about honoring Woodrow Wilson. To see why, let me return to Athens. Near the center of the city there’s a structure called the Arch of Hadrian. It is so named because it was raised to honor the Roman Emperor Hadrian when he visited the city in 131 or 132 CE. Now, Hadrian did some very objectionable things as emperor. For example, he suspected that a number of senators were conspiring against him and instead of putting those senators up for trial, he simply had them murdered. It would be odd, however, if someone were to use considerations such as this to argue for changing the name of the Arch of Hadrian. Why? Because today, at least, the name is not about honoring Emperor Hadrian, but rather about remembering a part of Athens’ history. So too, I would suggest, the name of the Woodrow Wilson School need not be about honoring Woodrow Wilson, but rather about remembering a part of Princeton’s history.
Daniel Wolt is a fifth year graduate student in the philosophy department from Colorado Springs, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.