Leah Libresco Sergeant Y’11 contemplates Yale’s renaming of Calhoun College, and observes that, in a peculiar way, the Jacobins and their toadies are really honoring John C. Calhoun.
Late last week, Yale announced that it would remove the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its residential collegesâ€”but clarified that the name would not be expunged wherever it was literally written in stone as part of the buildingâ€™s architecture. While the college will officially bear the new name of Grace Hopper College, honoring a pioneering computer scientist and veteran, to chisel off Calhounâ€™s name would be to neglect the â€œobligation not to efface the history.â€ (It would be expensive, to boot.)
Other than the physical presence of the name, thereâ€™s little else to erase about Calhoun. The drawn-out fights (and serial committees) questioning the appropriateness of Calhounâ€™s name miss how little tradition exists to be expungedâ€”in Calhounâ€™s namesake college, or in any of the other Yale colleges.
When I was an undergraduate, John C. Calhoun went largely unmentioned and unthought of in residential college life. If the college had instead been named (as a puckish friend suggested) for William Barron Calhoun (Yale class of 1814, a lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, ardent opponent of slavery), nothing about the day-to-day life of the college would have been different.
Yaleâ€™s residential colleges derive very little personality from their namesakes, or from anything else. Freshmen are assigned to them randomly, which prevents the colleges from developing reputations (as â€œthe arty oneâ€ or â€œthe sporty oneâ€). And Yaleâ€™s goal in recent years has been to homogenize the residential colleges even further, pooling money that alumni had given to their own colleges and distributing it equally, so that no college may have more or do more than another. …
Why have a namesake at all, if the college is not to be colored by his or her character? In my own college, Jonathan Edwards, there was never a mention of the Puritan preacherâ€™s theologyâ€”except that our intramural team was called the Spiders, a reference to his â€œSinners in the Hands of an Angry Godâ€ sermon. Jonathan Edwardsâ€™s theology exists for J.E. students only as a quaint, even comical, historical artifact. Why give a man the trappings of honor without ceding him any respect?
John C. Calhoun, in being removed, was awarded an odd sort of honor: His ideas were treated as relevant and dangerous. …