What's in a Name? - Encounter Books

What’s in a Name?

Yale's "Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming" and its Historic Antecedents
By Peter Merani | August 11, 2016

In recent years, college campuses have been all too happy to rename buildings, mascots, and even take down historical artifacts to appease those aiming to eliminate vestiges of our complicated past.

Amherst College has dropped its mascot Lord Jeffery Amherst, the colonial-era military commander who gave the college its name, due to his wrongful treatment of American Indians; students at the University of Missouri have petitioned to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson for perpetuating “a sexist-racist atmosphere that continues to reside on campus”; the University of Wisconsin-Stout is removing historic paintings of white traders and American Indians.

Now, after nearly renaming Calhoun College (due to John C. Calhoun’s defense of slavery), Yale President Peter Salovey has established a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming as “part of Yale’s efforts to promote greater inclusion and diversity on campus.”

The last committee to embrace renaming with such gusto, writes Encounter publisher Roger Kimball in the Wall Street Journal, might have been he Committee of Public Safety in 1793. Indeed, beyond guillotining their political enemies, the leaders of the French Revolution delighted in renaming—even the months of the year—in their campaign to eradicate the past’s power and claim ownership to the “virtuous” future:

A closer historical parallel, however, might be the Committee of Public Safety, which during the French Revolution worked overtime to assure that citizens lived up to its ideal of virtue. “Virtue” was a word always on the lips of the revolutionaries in France. They took the term from the man whom Robespierre called a “prodigy of virtue,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In everyday life, acting virtuously means such boring things as being kind, honest and dutiful. For moral prodigies, such pedestrian examples are beneath notice. Rousseau, “drunk with virtue” as he put it in his “Confessions,” nonetheless shipped off to a foundlings home all five of the children he had with his semi-literate mistress. She protested, but Rousseau cared not for he had “never felt the least glimmering of love for her.”

Robespierre floated aloft upon a similarly callous intoxication. The Republic, he said, was founded on “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Hence the work of the Committee of Public Safety, whose chief handmaiden was the guillotine and whose activities depended critically on anonymous reports about those whose commitment to virtue was less than wholehearted.

Yale, though sitting on a tax-exempt endowment of $24 billion, does not have the guillotine.

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Peter Merani is a journalist for the Port Washington Newspaper, The Odyssey Online, and the author of Evolution: Poetry. He is a junior at Franklin & Marshall College.  

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