The elite campus renaming wars of 2015-2016 have jeopardized the standings of many once-powerful men: Lord Jeffrey Amherst is no longer the mascot of Amherst College, two former Georgetown University Presidents were booted off campus buildings, and John Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson are in trouble at Yale and Princeton, respectively. Now Stanford students have picked a new, and somewhat more unlikely target: Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan priest who erected missions across California and was recently canonized by Pope Francis. The Stanford Daily reports:
… Leo Bird ’17, who wrote the bill to rename Stanford property, explained that his resolution was a means of igniting a conversation about the individuals memorialized by Stanford. In particular, Serra is alleged to be associated with the deaths of many Native Americans in California during the Mission Era.
… “The conversation should be centered around what these people mean to us in this day and age and what it means for our individual histories,” Bird said. “It should be initiated on the Stanford campus. If we name buildings after people who directly contributed to genocide, that perpetuates the historical trauma, [and] it does harm to my wellness, and Stanford has the obligation to care for its students.”
As we’ve said before, while calls to discard certain monuments and symbols often go hand-in-hand with some of the more authoritarian tactics we have seen from campus activists we’ve seen recently, such efforts are not inherently unhealthy or illiberal. Institutions can and sometimes do reckon productively with their history by engaging in robust public debate about the significance of symbols and iconography.
That said, the push to oust Junipero Serra shows that the renaming crusades can also become totally unmoored from any kind of genuine public reasoning or historical debate. There is a middle-ground, somewhere, between stubborn resistance to changing institutions in all cases, and a Jacobin-style drive to purge the past because it conflicts with current political sensibilities. The type of quasi-therapeutic language employed by the student quoted above to support his argument—”trauma,” “wellness,” “care”—is a tip-off that this push is driven more by a kind of free-floating hypersensitivity that could be applied to anything even marginally offensive rather than by any narrow and principled argument.
American history is filled with characters, like Serra, who accomplished great things despite occasional missteps and follies. (In Serra’s case, those missteps basically amount to participating in the Spanish missionary project, which was sometimes coercive, yes, but which also had an indelible impact on the development of the American West—and though some criticize Serra for his practices and links to oppression, others have said “he protected our people and supported their full human rights against the politicians and the military.”) Any political movement that starts to demand total perfection and purity from historical figures, rather than processing and trying to understand their imperfections, is veering into dangerous territory—and one day, more likely than not, will turn on itself.