Purging Harvard’s Unpalatable Past

“How can we lodge the truth of history in national discourse and public policy?” asked President Faust in a centenary tribute to historian John Hope Franklin, whose 1941 Harvard doctorate marked an African-American milestone. In accord with Franklin, she argues that academic history must become “a recognized part of everyday life and understanding.” Yet toward that aim, Harvard’s current flinching from slavery’s echoes—the House ‘masters’, the Law School’s seal—seems regressive. Expunging the Royall seal does not right past wrongs; it speeds their oblivion. Replacing ‘House masters’ with an anodyne term is the verbal whitewashing that Franklin deplored. He insisted that we must “confront our past and see it for what it is”—and our past necessarily includes the sordid story of American slavery’s subsequent neglect.

Here I voice a concurrent concern: Risks to Harvard’s scholarly repute. In justifying the removal of the title and seal, Harvard’s deans, the Law School, and the Corporation flouted accepted historical tenets. Condemning Washington and Jefferson along with Isaac Royall—and by implication all slaveholders—for their “moral feet of clay as slave-owners,” the Law School committee seems to forget that slavery was long a generally approved practise. So the committee did what it denied doing, “judging . . . the eighteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first.” Deans self-righteously extenuated the out-dated usages of bygone undergraduates. Expunging ‘master’ didn’t mean that the “old title was necessarily ‘wrong’”; rather, alumni who fondly remembered “the master of their beloved house should have no qualms in doing so.” The linguistic crudity of their unenlightened epoch is humored as “part of [a] long and proud history.” As for the Law School seal, the Corporation laments that the 1936 begetters failed to foresee “that its imagery might evoke associations with slavery.” Had those old-timers been more prescient, they would “quite likely” have rejected the seal. Too bad they were not more like us!

It is one thing to condemn past injustice, quite another to blame its perpetrators for lacking present probity. Blessed with “that absolute knowledge of right and wrong which enables us to pass final judgment on the men of the past,” wrote Inquisition historian Henry C. Lea in 1903, we complacently “measure them by our own moral yardstick.” But every sin condemned even in the Ten Commandments has been thought a virtue. Moreover, censuring predecessors puts us at like mercy of posterity; we cannot predict for what sins our successors will chastise us. “As we would have our descendants judge us, so ought we to judge our fathers,” advised the British historian T. B. Macaulay. “To form a correct estimate of their merits, we ought . . . to put out of our minds, for a time, all that knowledge which they could not have.”

The dilemma is that historical hindsight leaves our heads at odds with our hearts. “We are all convinced that enslaving human beings is bad,” concludes jurist-historian John T. Noonan Jr. ’47. “Can anyone today contemplate the slave trader or slaveholder without a shudder of disgust? … Abstractly, we may concede that [they] . . . thought that they acted justly. In our bones we experience repugnance and even righteous rage.” Rage and repugnance fuel reformist zeal, but they blind us to our own biases and obscure our understanding of the conflicted history we inherit.


Harvard’s reformers privilege the virtuous present over the villainous past. The deans would revoke any tradition that they feel discomfiting, like the term ‘master’. “Titles can and should change when such a change serves our mission,” which requires erasing “barriers” and “impediments” to collegiality—obstacles like references to slavery or, indeed, any offensive words or ideas.

But a university is not a refuge for students “to be protected from any form of dissent,” as Rachel E. Huebner ’18 recently wrote; instead, counseled the late Yale professor C. Vann Woodward, it ought to be “a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.” College should be a place where barriers are confronted, not eliminated; students should learn to master impediments, not erase them. But doing so requires that they engage with often abhorrent, distressing, offensive ideas and values of other times. “Representing the past,” remarks historian of slavery David Blight, “needs to cause pain.”

To suppose that our precursors would have shared today’s social ideals, if only less blinkered, is incongruous presentism. To deplore and then palliate past failure to live up to modern morality is patronizing anachronism. To expunge visual reminders of a discomfiting past is ahistorical myopia. Retrospective humility mandates not only remembering the authors of acts and views now condemned, but also preserving the honors accorded to them as cautionary reminders. We need tangible mementos of actions and agents once acclaimed but since repudiated, once lauded but since loathed. They are lessons in the transience of fame and the perils of hero worship. It is futile to erase or hide a disconcerting history. “The good and bad of our past [are] inherently entwined,” as Professor Annette Gordon-Reed noted in urging the Law School to keep the Royall seal. History can be hard to digest, but it must be swallowed whole to undeceive the present and edify the future.

David Lowenthal ’44 is Emeritus Professor of Geography and Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He is the author, most recently, of “The Past Is a Foreign Country—Revisited."