Does the ignorance of an accomplished man negate the good things he's done?

Before I moved to Philadelphia last year I lived for a long time in Plainsboro, New Jersey, one town over from Princeton. I spent a great deal of time in Princeton, going to church there, dining out with family, and enjoying the Princeton University campus.

Two years ago, while working a seasonal position at the local bookstore that serves the university, I was asked to make a delivery to a building on campus named after a former president of Princeton University and former President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

I never knew that he was president of the university from 1902 to 1910, but when I learned of it, I read about his many contributions. During his tenure as university president, Wilson raised the endowment, brought in highly skilled professors, and acquired money for a graduate school program, to name a few of his accomplishments. But this week I learned something else about Wilson that I didn’t know: he was an unmitigated racist.

Born in 1856 Virginia, Wilson undoubtedly acquired his racism while a teenager under the policies of Reconstruction. He saw the ravages of Civil War on white communities and held the firm belief that Blacks were inferior to Whites well before he became a student at Princeton and later its president in 1902. His instillation of a policy prohibiting black students at Princeton stood until the early 1940s.

Recently, several students staged a sit-in at the current Princeton University President’s office. The group demanded that the school strip the name of Woodrow Wilson from the buildings and programs that bear his name. When I learned of this, I wondered if a person’s shortcomings cancel out all of the good that person might have done; if one’s legacy is only defined by a single aspect of one’s life.

Those participants of the sit-in would likely argue that Wilson’s racism does, indeed, overshadow the good he did both as president of the university and as President of the United States. It very well may. But do his flaws merit an erasure of all the good for which he was honored? Can he not be known for the policies and ideas that were beneficial during his lifetime and beyond?

Perhaps he cannot be known in perpetuity for his good work alone; perhaps none of us can (I know I won’t). But I hope that his faults, significant though they may be, will not be seen as the only marks he made upon humankind.

We seem to be moving toward a culture that believes the only way to deal with anything ugly is to wipe it from the face of the Earth in its entirety. We want to erase anything that isn’t perfect. Most people don’t want to remember someone “warts and all.” Often the same people who don’t even know what the phrase “warts and all” means.

I truly believe that most people want to find the good in others. It may not take too long for people to call off the search, but it’s been my experience that most folks start off that way. The fact of the matter is we’re all flawed; we all have made, and will continue to make, bad decisions as well as good. Humanity will never achieve the development of the perfect person. What we can do is have a conversation about what has gone wrong in our past and put in place new ideals to be better people.

In this world of sound bytes and 140 character messages, we have become very quick to rush to judgment about whatever the topic of the day might be. As I have gotten older, I have seen snap judgments win out over thoughtful consideration of the whole picture. It’s a very slippery slope to be on.

I’m not saying Woodrow Wilson was a great university president. I’m not even saying he was a great President of the United States. What I am saying is that he was significant and deserves to be honored. Should he continue to be honored at Princeton University the way he has been? That’s definitely something they should discuss, but it’s the discussion that matters.

All we can hope for after we leave this world is that those who are left behind will judge us on our merits as well as our faults. Judging only part of a person only gets us half the story. My story is messy because I’m not perfect. I think Woodrow Wilson would say the same.

5 COMMENTS

  1. “The evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
    There is no way to know whether the world is a better or a worse place because he lived. Nor, does it matter.

  2. I’m not sure I agree, though I’m hard pressed to give a better answer to the dilemma you describe.

    In the recent debates over the confederate battle flag, southern racists declared that to remove the flag is to erase history –similar to the argument you’re making about removing Wilson’s name from the building at Princeton.

    But I think a distinction can be made between the rhetoric of “erasing history” (history still exists, after all, and nothing’s preventing anyone from researching Woodrow Wilson or the Confederacy to their heart’s content) and placing people in a place of honor. When our institutions carry the names and images that represent certain ideas, we’re signaling the esteem that they carry in our public life. Removing them isn’t eliminating history so much as it’s ensuring that the things we give honor to are reflective of our values.

    Still, I understand that there’s a dilemma here. Wilson was a racist –yet his work laid the groundwork for our international institutions that promote world peace and the rights of all people to self-determination. Which matters more to the oppressed people of the world?

    Thomas Jefferson wrote the foundational document for the universal equality of all people –and he owned slaves. John Lennon brought the message of peace to billions of people –yet he abused his first wife.

    The answer, I think, shouldn’t be to raise flawed human beings (ie, all of us) onto pedestals and then rip them down, but to find better ways to honor the ideas above the personalities.

    • Thank you for reading, JJ, and I really appreciate the comment. It is a very difficult dilemma. What I would say about the Confederate Flag is that I hesitate to compare a symbol to a human being. Wilson is more than a symbol of hatred or period of history. He was a flawed human being, as we all are.

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