As our moral standards shift, however, different characteristics of the historical person become more relevant, and the symbol can develop a different meaning. When Wilson’s name was added to Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs in 1948, Rosa Parks’ famous bus ride was still seven years away, and segregation in the American South was not under serious challenge. Now it is unthinkable. Wilson’s racism therefore becomes more salient.--Peter Singer. [HT Brian Leiter]
As I said, I really like the drift of these comments. But it is alarming that even Singler, who has spent quite some time reflecting and writing on Sidgwick, only learned of Wilson's racism recently (through student protests); it says something about the way the Utilitarians, the Progressive era, and the great internationalist era that led to the foundation of the League of Nations are remembered. The entanglement with eugenics (even Sidgwick was rather tolerant of it), racism, colonial imperialism, and Apartheid (Smuts was one of the great statesman of the League of Nations) is often effaced from the narrative and self-awareness. Perhaps, because of my growing awareness of these effacements (which I encounter regularly in the shared history of philosophy and economics), I found the paragraph at the top of the post out of sync with the rest of the argument.
Wilson’s contributions to the university, the US, and the world cannot and should not be erased from history. They should, instead, be recognized in a manner that creates a nuanced conversation about changing values, and includes both his positive achievements and his contributions to America’s racist policies and practices.
At Princeton, one outcome of that conversation should be the education of students and faculty who would otherwise be unaware of the complexity of an important figure in the university’s history. (I certainly have benefited: I have taught at Princeton for 16 years, and I have admired some of Wilson’s foreign-policy positions for much longer; but I owe my knowledge of Wilson’s racism to the BJL.) The end result of the conversation we should be having may well be the recognition that to attach Wilson’s name to a college or school sends a message that misrepresents the values for which the institution stands.