Confronting History, Warts And All

At the University of Virginia, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson lurks just about everywhere you look.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, really — Jefferson was the founder of U. Va., and designed some of the buildings.  And, in the course of the university’s history, his words have been quoted to students over and over again.

So when the current president of the University of Virginia wrote to students and the school community after the results of the 2016 presidential election, it was not a surprise that a Jefferson quote found its way into the missive.

But some professors at U. Va. had had enough.  They wrote a letter to the school’s president asking that she stop using Jefferson as a “moral compass.”  In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President, Jefferson was a slaveholder who propounded views of racial inferiority.  The letter states that “[t]hough we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we hope to bring to light that many of us are deeply offended by attempts of the administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”  It adds: “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.”

Although some people might consider the complaining professors to be ingrates — after all, the school that employs them wouldn’t exist but for Jefferson — I think they raise a valid point.  For too long, we’ve airbrushed the “Founding Fathers” and other American historical figures.  We quote their lofty, elevated statements but ignore the baser elements of their stories.  As a result, they become more like marble statues and less like the real people they actually were.

You’re never going to take Jefferson out of the University of Virginia — he was so proud of his role in its founding that he instructed it should be one of three accomplishments noted on his tombstone — but you can recognize that, for all of his brilliance, he was a deeply flawed person who held human beings as slaves.  Grappling with his contradictions and understanding his obvious personal limitations seems like a worthwhile academic endeavor.

And it might be good for the school, too, if administrators resisted the temptation to trot out Jefferson quotes at every opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with an occasional backward glance, but colleges and universities should focus on looking forward.

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