Yale, the Indian, the Puritan, & the Politics of Display & Discussion

Yale University plans to move a controversial stone carving from a pillar by the entrance to a renovated library to a museum setting for study. The carving shows an Indian with a bow facing a musket-carrying Puritan.

(Below, two views of the carving:  on top is the original, with musket; below, today’s version, musket covered. In its future home, the covering will come off.)

Penn, under review also.

Such campus “cleansing” is also occurring on other campuses, and in different settings, particularly religious. And it is controversial.

For instance, recent efforts to marginalize  or “cancel” William Penn by some Pennsylvania Quakers seem to me short-sighted. Yes, Penn once owned some slaves. That was a blot, but on an otherwise remarkable record, which I consider well worth remembering, grappling with, and yes, in many respects celebrating.

But back to Yale. A law professor there decried the move in today’s Washington Post. The move, and its motivation, in his view, have serious drawbacks. As he put it:

Anthony Kronman, Washington Post: 

This kind of ethical cleansing is bad for many reasons. One is that it discounts the importance of discomfort in the process of learning. Discovering what your conscience demands is the reward for confronting ideas that shock it, and maturity is the prize of learning to live with ambiguity.

Another is that it confirms the wish to have one’s field of vision seamlessly fit one’s system of values. It invites the smug belief that a real problem has been met simply by removing an irritant from view.

A third is that it reinforces the belief that those who lived before us were blinded by prejudices we have thankfully overcome. But that itself is a prejudice — one that powerfully shapes campus life in an age otherwise devoted to the eradication of prejudice in all its forms.

Anthony Kronman

This trend places moral self-confidence ahead of the life of the mind, which is always more than a little dangerous, because that adventure should put even our firmest convictions at risk. . . .”

All these points, made about college-level education, in my view apply to religious/spiritual life too. As Kronman also argues, 

“Our students must of course be free from physical harm. But they must also be free from the spirit of moral conformity that today represents a danger of a more insidious kind.. . .” 

Besides “students,” this hazard also faces many religious seekers and their faith  communities.

But let’s also hear the other side. The university released the following statement on August 22 about moving a historical piece:

Yale University is moving a decorative piece of stonework from the main entrance of its Center for Teaching and Learning. The decorative piece will be made available for study and viewing, and written material will accompany it and place it in historical context.

A carving, created during the construction of the building in 1929, depicts a Puritan settler holding a musket pointed toward the head of a Native American. During renovation of the building to accommodate the Center for Teaching and Learning, the project team in consultation with Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces determined that leaving the depiction in place would have the unintended effect of giving it a place of honor that it does not deserve. The university consulted faculty and other scholarly experts, who concluded that the image depicts a scene of warfare and colonial violence toward local Native American inhabitants.

The decision to move this carving, contextualize it, and make it available for study is consistent with principles articulated by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (CEPR) and adopted by the Yale Corporation in December 2016.  The university has an obligation not to hide from or destroy reminders of unpleasant history; at the same time, the university chooses the symbols and depictions that stand in places of honor. The prominence of this carving changed when its location became a main entrance to the Center for Teaching and Learning.
When the carving was originally discussed in the spring of 2016, the CEPR had not yet been formed and articulated principles. A team in charge of planning for the construction project decided to cover the depiction of the musket with removable stonework. Covering over the problematic aspect of this carving is not consistent with the principles subsequently adopted by the university in the CEPR report; and therefore, when the carving is relocated, the covering stonework will be removed.

In explaining the decision to move the decorative corbel and restore the covered part of it, President Peter Salovey said, “We cannot make alterations to works of art on our campus. Such alteration represents an erasure of history, which is entirely inappropriate at a university. We are obligated to allow students and others to view such images, even when they are offensive, and to study and learn from them. In carrying out this obligation, we also have a responsibility to provide information that helps all viewers understand the meaning of the image.  We do so in a setting that clearly communicates that the content of the image is not being honored or even taken lightly but, rather, is deserving of thoughtful consideration and reflection.”

What do you think? And as the Puritan goes, so goes Penn? And which other worthies?

The library entrance. The carving is at the bottom of the pillar to the viewer’s right.

4 thoughts on “Yale, the Indian, the Puritan, & the Politics of Display & Discussion”

  1. Chuck, if a statue of Penn was of him holding a musket to the head of a slave or a whip or otherwise showing acts or threats of violence, I would not at all object to the statue being treated the way this one is being handled at Yale where it is removed from a place of honor and still available with education materials – hopefully well advertised and used, not just off in a locked room.
    I think it is not that this is a Puritan that is the problem but the visible threat of violence toward a Native American that they do not want idolized.
    However, if this statue (or the one of Penn) was in a museum among other works of art I would not want it removed but rather provided with those materials to educate and make people think and discuss about the image and the complexity of who we are and who we put on pedestals.

  2. Seems to me that Yale has gotten it right this time: don’t COVER UP the unpleasant, embarrassing image. Instead, move it to a more appropriate location and give it context. Invite people to understand more, to learn more, to speak out more.

  3. This is tragic and a denial of public history. What needs to be done is not erase controversy from the public square, but use the statues to teach history, to show where people were in the past.
    Heck, are they going to move the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Alamo, the California Bear Flag because they were all enslavers, etc.?

    As a retired American literature teacher, I hate this sort of distortion of public history. I used to teach the Puritans (who I strongly oppose), Native Americans (who in some cases I also strongly oppose), etc.

    Are Friends going to move all references to a library of George Fox because of his support of Oliver Cromwell and for not condemning slavery?
    Good grief…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.