By Maj. Peter M. Erickson
The ongoing attempt by some Princeton University students to remove the name and erase the legacy of Woodrow Wilson is misguided. Worse, should the university acquiesce to this demand, it would send an extraordinarily bad message — one that would diminish the role and significance of higher education, and tarnish the legacy of Princeton University for years to come.
Woodrow Wilson was far from perfect. He was human and lived in a time in which policies and beliefs were no doubt at odds with contemporary values. Yet historical context is important, particularly in seeking truth and assessing the life and works of an individual. This involves “critical thinking, ” a skill and art which is rapidly disappearing, especially among academic institutions whose very purpose is the fostering of non-stifling discourse and critical thinking.
Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 – nearly 160 years ago. At the time of his birth in Staunton, Virginia, which would become a few years later the heart of the seceded Confederate States of America, slavery and racism were prevalent. The vast majority of Wilson’s white, southern, male peers probably held the same opinions as Woodrow Wilson throughout their lives.
This acknowledgement is not an apology for Wilson’s thoughts, but rather an attempt to acknowledge our own history. It is a dangerous exercise when we judge historical figures through a modern-day prism without simultaneously attempting to understand the contexts in which these historical figures lived. Indeed, we might not be comfortable with what we find or uncover. But such an exercise is vital, and helps us to think critically about who we are and where we came from. It is essential to understanding our past.
Furthermore, we know that racism did not end with Wilson. Two of my personal heroes since childhood, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, like Woodrow Wilson, were also far from perfect. Each made very controversial decisions as president of the United States, and history continues to judge both.
In one of the saddest moments in American history, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066 in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, authorizing the internment of more than 50,000 Japanese-Americans. Even though I think that this decision was prejudiced and despicable, even after attempting to understand the context surrounding that decision, I firmly believe that the great, overarching theme of Roosevelt’s life — as person and as president — is not one of racism. Rather, the dominant tenor of his life speaks of leadership, of courage, and of determination in shepherding the United States through the unfathomably dark years of World War II. I believe it is not only possible, but proper, to acknowledge Roosevelt’s many mistakes and still admire him on the whole. The same should be done for Woodrow Wilson.
Whether or not Princeton University ultimately decides to remove the memory of Woodrow Wilson from the school will not impact him personally. He is dead and has been for a very long time. But this decision will no doubt impact current and future Princetonians, as well as generations of students across the United States. Removing his name may make a few current students more comfortable today, but it will not rewrite history, and will come at even a greater price. Removing Woodrow Wilson’s name will teach us to try and bury the past, rather than to wrestle with our own national heritage.
Keeping Wilson’s legacy alive at Princeton, on the other hand, is not synonymous with honoring all of the aspects of his life. But it will pay tribute to the ideals of an imperfect person who, in spite of his human flaws, looked at the present day and desired something better. Wilson was the mighty, progressive champion of peace who sought to strengthen and build international institutions for the good of mankind. This is the Wilson that Princeton is proud of and remembers. Surely Princeton University can find the nuance of thought to build off his legacy toward a brighter future, while still acknowledging his many mistakes.
While perusing the stacks in the library recently, I picked up a book whose title jumped out at me. The book is called “Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him,” penned in 1921 by Joseph Tumulty, who served as Wilson’s personal secretary. The author makes a couple of stunning observations about Woodrow Wilson, and reveals a president whose attributes are lacking across colleges and universities today.
Tumulty wants readers to know that Wilson “welcomed suggestions and criticism,” and that it “was a habit of Mr. Wilson’s to meditate before taking action, to listen to advice without comment.” He closes the preface of the book by saying the following: “I am convinced that he who reads this book will feel that he has met a man whose public career was governed not merely by a great brain, but also by a great heart. I did not invent this character. I observed him for 11 years.”
I cannot help but think that this aspect of Woodrow Wilson’s character — the ability to listen to a variety of opinions, and to even welcome criticism, is exactly what is missing from Princeton and other universities today. To that end, I welcome the ongoing criticism of Wilson. But let’s not try to erase history in the process. My hope is that recent events and discussions across colleges and universities will inspire each student, educator, and administrator to pursue an educational purpose designed to foster greater brains, improved critical thinking skills, and even greater hearts.
Major Peter M. Erickson is a General Wayne A. Downing Fellow, and is pursuing a master of public affairs degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His views are his own, and do not represent those of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.
By Maj. Peter M. Erickson