A college that accepted slavery now exalts plutocracy

Blackstone boss Schwarzman wants Yale’s historic Commons to carry his name; and the university erases a second historic name instead of re-evaluating it.

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
17 October 2019, 11.45am
Grace Hopper: can her name help to erase a shameful history?
Lynn Gilbert. Free use.

In 2009 the African-American historian Jonathan Holloway, then master of Yale’s residential, undergraduate John C. Calhoun College, invited me to become a fellow there. That was before the university became convulsed by controversy over the name of Calhoun, the pre-civil war US vice president, senator and constitutional theorist but also an ardent and powerful defender of slavery. To make matters worse, the residential-college title of ‘master’ seemed to many to double down on Calhoun’s slave-master legacy.

Holloway’s America and mine was still a country where the folk singer Joan Baez, a progressive’s progressive, had moved audiences of all persuasions by singing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, a song that enfolds the secessionist Confederacy’s ‘lost cause’ romantics empathetically into a larger US civic culture. If there wasn’t much controversy in 2009 about Calhoun College and the title of ‘master’, it wasn’t because no one was ‘woke’ to history’s cruelties and ironies: it was because, in that first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, there was more hope for a shared civic and political culture. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign that started at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015 and spread to Oxford University and Harvard Law School was still some years in the future.

No one was more ‘woke’ to US civic culture’s defaults than Holloway, an intellectual historian of black America. But he had wiser ideas and inclinations, honed since his childhood, about how to confront his country’s racial cruelties and ironies. Yale is stirring again now, as it was in 2015, with discontent over renamings: a somewhat nasty rehashing of what was accomplished and lost in renaming Calhoun College for the late, pioneering Yale computer scientist Grace Hopper, and a rising resistance to the university’s renaming of its historic Commons dining hall as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, after the billionaire whose donations have already put his name on the flagship building of the New York Public Library, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology College of Computing and Rhodes-like scholarships in China. That makes it imperative to revisit Holloway’s admonition that the real controversy is “not about the name on the building. It’s about a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation.”

Oil painting of a man
John C. Calhoun, around 1845
George Peter Alexander Healy (painter). Public domain.

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By renaming Calhoun College after Hopper, the university acknowledged but merely finessed Holloway’s call. But renaming Commons after Schwarzman openly flouts any such commitment by giving Yale’s imprimatur to self-celebrating, self-exculpating philanthropy. No donor is pure, but Yale’s acceptance of this donor and donation was inexcusable, given his personal, business, and even political practices, which I’ve outlined in The Washington Monthly and in Dissent. Undoubtedly, there are several reasons why Holloway has left Yale to become the provost of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, but I can’t imagine him being happy when, as dean of Yale College, he was tasked with co-chairing the committee on reconfiguring Commons to become the Schwarzman Center, in whose redesign Schwarzman himself has been intimately involved.

“The right kind of family”

Born in 1967, Holloway grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and other places from which his US Air Force father – later to become the first black instructor at the Air War College – flew front-line missions in Vietnam and other hot spots. When Jonathan was six years old, the air force wanted to improve its public image by making his father a general in the Strategic Air Command. Jonathan’s ‘Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940, a gripping memoir-cum-meditation, reports that the higher-ups believed that his father and mother were raising “the right kind of family” to integrate into both the air force and the all-white Montgomery Academy that some military children were attending.

Man in a suit.
Jonathan Holloway
All rights reserved.

Holloway and his siblings became the first black students to take the school’s admissions test, but news reports of that breakthrough enraged local racists. Soon after, his father nixed both his own promotion and his children’s likely admission to the academy: he’d become disillusioned with the military, he wasn’t a civil-rights activist and he didn’t want to head a ‘poster family’ for integration. “Was his personal silence [about racism and US war-making] something that he felt he needed to pass on to his children?” Jonathan wonders in his book. “Is that [silence] what made us the ‘right kind of family’?”

Whatever it was, Holloway’s father resisted being showcased not only because he was ‘woke’ against racial tokenism and the condescension that often accompanies it but because he was also wise about the tactical importance of bending history’s arc toward justice without being so histrionic about it that one becomes counterproductive. I learned a similar lesson while following black protest politics in Brooklyn in the 1980s, writing my book ‘The Closest of Strangers’ as Al Sharpton’s and others’ wild polemics and false accusations marginalised grievances that were otherwise wholly legitimate. Holloway learned the lesson far more effectively and felicitously, and mastered the art of winning over presumptive enemies instead of demonising them.

Transvaluing the past

In 2015, Holloway resisted the clamour to rename Calhoun College because, as he explained later, he preferred making a “powerful statement about the redemptive power of the American experiment that an African-American – one who specialized in the African-American past, no less – could run a college named for John C. Calhoun…. The very fact that Calhoun could not imagine someone like me teaching at Yale… offered a commentary on how far we had come as a country.”

Old building in the snow
Grace Hopper College, when it was still called John C. Calhoun College
Public domain

Small wonder then that, a year before controversy erupted over the ‘master’ title and the Calhoun name, I watched Master Jonathan Holloway, with his trademark mix of immense dignity and friendly accessibility, read from ‘Jim Crow Wisdom’ to a rapt Calhoun College audience as he stood near its mounted oil portrait of none other than John C. Calhoun. Sitting in the audience, ramrod straight, restraining his pride, was Holloway’s father, a witness to the redemptive power of “the American experiment” as his son transvalued enough of the values that had surrounded Calhoun to make the latter roll over in his grave. Holloway’s dignity and courage made dropping the title of ‘master’ seem more a dodge than an enlargement of that word’s benign meanings.

A couple of historical analogies are worth pondering here. If medieval Spanish Catholicism were still the only official and permissible religion in Los Angeles, the city’s thousands of Muslim, Jewish and other non-Catholic residents might well object to the fact that the full, legal name of the city is still El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles del Rio Porciuncula – The City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels of the River Porciuncula. Today, though, those who are even aware of the city’s full name enjoy its harmless antiquity.

The US state of Rhode Island’s full name – The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – is more problematic. A decade ago, some of the state’s black legislators sought, but, in a statewide referendum, failed, to remove ‘Providence Plantations’. Their reasons were similar to those given by Yale students who associated the title of ‘master’ with slave masters in the Old South: the brute fact of colonisation made the term ‘plantation’ a carrier of injustice. That is true even though ‘plantation’ was merely a generic English term for settlements in America when Rhode Island was settled and led by the dissident Puritan Roger Williams, who abhorred slavery and interacted with the area’s Native Americans as their guest and brother, not their conqueror.

Unlike ‘master’ , which is still readily associated with master carpenters, portraitists, and musical maestros, ‘plantation’ hasn’t carried other, more benign meanings into our time. But if that’s true, shouldn’t whites – the descendants and beneficiaries of the colonisers – remove not only the term ‘plantation’ but also themselves from the former colonies? Not if they treat the past as Jonathan Holloway did at Yale – as a prod to bend history’s arc toward justice.

Holloway eventually did accept the renaming of Calhoun College, but even then he wrote, “I am riven” – torn between his own, more powerful statement and his recognition that “we are living in an era when nuance has lost so much value and when withering excoriations play better in a universe of likes and retweets…”. When Yale’s convulsions came in 2015, he was confronted one day on campus by distraught black undergraduates who, although middle class, were finding Yale unbearably cold and demeaning. They were burdened with others’ expectations, regardless of whether those expectations were outsized or low, as well as occasional malevolence, and hadn’t grown up with options as tightly monitored and disciplined as those that had helped Holloway to earn his BA at Stanford and his PhD in history at Yale. The symbolism in removing Calhoun’s name couldn’t offset the deepening complicity of “the American experiment” and Yale itself in perpetuating the structural systems of privilege, inequality and illegitimate power which Holloway had criticised. True enough, racist and anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, but that’s partly because inequality among US citizens of all backgrounds is rising, too.

“Courage Disdains Fame and Wins It”

That brings us to the tragedy of Yale’s Commons, the vast, baronial dining hall in the university’s semi-sacred civic centre that was built for the university’s bicentennial in 1901. Commons is connected to Memorial Hall, a rotunda where the names of hundreds of Yale men who died in the country’s wars are inscribed in icy marble under apothegms such as “Courage Disdains Fame and Wins It.” It is also connected to Woolsey Hall, the university’s grand auditorium, home to one of the world’s largest, most renowned Romantic organs, whose thundering brought Schwarzman, me and a thousand other overwhelmingly white young men in dark suits to our feet on 13 September 1965 as our induction into Yale began.

Spacious old dining hall.
Commons, as it was
Adam Jones. Some rights reserved.

Were we being inducted into liberal education’s great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit? Or were we being inducted into a thundering nationalism and imperialism? Or both? What would Socrates have said? The name ‘Commons’ had taken on democratic as well as aristocratic resonances over the years: anyone at Yale could eat there, and Socratic dialogues did ensue over some meals. But all those names engraved in the rotunda a few yards away suggested that we were supposed to become the ‘guardians’ of Plato’s Republic, elite ‘good shepherds’ of society, in competition only with a few other ‘guardians’ similarly endowed and entitled.

In his book ‘What It Takes’, Schwarzman recalls only that “Commons… seemed like a train station full of hundreds of people eating”, unlike his high school cafeteria, where, he writes, “I had known everyone. At Yale in the fall of 1965… I didn’t know a single one… The loneliness was crushing. Everyone and everything intimidated me.”

Man speaking in front of a World Economic Forum backdrop
Stephen A. Schwarzman
World Economic Forum/swiss-image.ch/Nicola Pitaro. Some rights reserved.

Others of us felt alone and intimidated, too, but some of us also felt challenged to become worthy of something larger than ourselves. I wasn’t sure just what that something might be, but Schwarzman’s response to feeling small has been to make himself so much larger than what Commons represented that he would reconfigure and rename it for himself. The New York Times ‘style’ writer Jacob Bernstein portrayed him recently as “a flash point for income inequality, a man with more money than respect”, whose poor reputation “seldom stops him from having the last laugh, or getting the multi-million-dollar tax write-off”. The adjacent Woolsey Hall auditorium, by comparison, is named for Theodore Dwight Woolsey, a descendant of two Yale presidents and a political economist who was himself the university’s president from 1846 to 1871, including throughout the civil war.

Schwarzman’s business practices and collaborations with President Trump are a civil war’s distance from Holloway’s call for “a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation”. His insatiable drive to name things after himself is even more distant from the courage that “disdains fame and wins it”.

Like Holloway, I’m “riven” about Yale’s decision to drop the name Calhoun and the title of master instead of transvaluing them, as he did. But I’m certain that swapping the civic and historical resonances of ‘Commons’ for the conceits of ‘Schwarzman’, giving him the pleasure of turning the tables on an institution that daunted him, is a blunder. So is the silence about it from those who have demanded or resisted the defenestration of Calhoun. Yale has been seduced by a $150-million bells and whistles student centre into traducing the best of what it and Holloway have stood for. More faculty, including the faculty senate, should say so. So should more students, some of whom have written trenchant analyses of this folly, as I’ve recounted in the columns about Schwarzman linked above.

Equally well-justified is the recent open letter by students and faculty at Oxford University objecting to the naming of its humanities centre after Schwarzman, who donated $150 million from what the letter contends is the “exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world” by his private equity firm, Blackstone. Time will tell whether Schwarzman’s derivative-driven, supposedly ‘hands-clean’ capitalism is as immoral and destructive as the gulag of slavery that Calhoun defended. But it’s long past time for liberal education to pose that challenge and forestall its own co-optation.

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Politic.

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