The trouble with Calhoun

Having previously declared that the name of Calhoun College was to survive the grand renaming project undertaken by the university, President Peter Salovey was at pains to explain why the university had changed its mind. What was once Calhoun College is now to be Hopper College.

What happened? Roger Kimball explores the question in the Wall Street Journal column “Yale’s inconsistent name-dropping” (accessible here via Google). In the column Roger mischievously explicates the text of the “Letter of the Advisory Group on the Renaming of Calhoun College.” Roger declares it “a masterpiece of the genre.”

What is the genre? Roger refers to “tortuous verbal legerdemain.” Whatever the genre, it lies somewhere at the crossroads of history and politics…and fundraising. If it weren’t for the money at stake, the renaming project would be so much easier. Like the “bloody crossroads” where Lionel Trilling found the meeting of politics and literature, danger abounds here. It represents an existential crisis. The “torture” reflects careful calculation in a “good” cause.

The powers that be at Yale united to condemn Calhoun in contemporary terms as a “white supremacist.” Roger poses the question: “Who among whites at the time was not?” I can think of a few, but they are in short supply among those honored in the names of other Yale colleges, or in the name of the university itself:

Calhoun owned slaves. But so did Timothy Dwight, Calhoun’s mentor at Yale, who has a college named in his honor. So did Benjamin Silliman, who also gives his name to a residential college, and whose mother was the largest slave owner in Fairfield County, Conn. So did Ezra Stiles,John Davenport and even Jonathan Edwards, all of whom have colleges named in their honor at Yale.

Writing in these pages last summer, I suggested that Yale table the question of John Calhoun and tackle some figures even more obnoxious to contemporary sensitivities. One example was Elihu Yale, the American-born British merchant who, as an administrator in India, was an active participant in the slave trade.

President Salovey’s letter announcing that Calhoun College would be renamed argues that “unlike . . . Elihu Yale, who made a gift that supported the founding of our university . . . Calhoun has no similarly strong association with our campus.” What can that mean? Calhoun graduated valedictorian from Yale College in 1804. Is that not a “strong association”? (Grace Hopper held two advanced degrees from the university but had no association with the undergraduate Yale College.)

If you’re not going to go full Bolshevik, the degree of difficulty involved here is high. The university has therefore turned to its best minds to assist in finding its way toward the desired results. The desired results must include whiling away the time until the fever passes.

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