Late last week, Yale announced that it would remove the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its residential colleges—but clarified that the name would not be expunged wherever it was literally written in stone as part of the building’s architecture. While the college will officially bear the new name of Grace Hopper College, honoring a pioneering computer scientist and veteran, to chisel off Calhoun’s name would be to neglect the “obligation not to efface the history.” (It would be expensive, to boot.)

Other than the physical presence of the name, there’s little else to erase about Calhoun. The drawn-out fights (and serial committees) questioning the appropriateness of Calhoun’s name miss how little tradition exists to be expunged—in Calhoun’s namesake college, or in any of the other Yale colleges.

When I was an undergraduate, John C. Calhoun went largely unmentioned and unthought of in residential college life. If the college had instead been named (as a puckish friend suggested) for William Barron Calhoun (Yale class of 1814, a lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, ardent opponent of slavery), nothing about the day-to-day life of the college would have been different.

Yale’s residential colleges derive very little personality from their namesakes, or from anything else. Freshmen are assigned to them randomly, which prevents the colleges from developing reputations (as “the arty one” or “the sporty one”). And Yale’s goal in recent years has been to homogenize the residential colleges even further, pooling money that alumni had given to their own colleges and distributing it equally, so that no college may have more or do more than another.

All that comes to mind when I try to remember something specific to Calhoun College is that it hosts the “Trolley Night” dance, at which students dress in traffic light colors of red, yellow, or green, to indicate how interested they are in hooking up. This practice differentiates Calhoun from other colleges—such as Silliman, whose raucous annual dance has an Eighties theme.

Now that Calhoun College is Hopper College, perhaps the colors could represent “PERFORM,” “PERFORM UNTIL,” and “PERFORM END,” in homage to Grace Hopper’s work on the COBOL programming language. But I’d rather see civic hackathons, robot fighting rings, or anything that linked the life of the college to its namesake in a meaningful way.

If Yale had wanted to make real use of Calhoun’s name, it could have drawn from his clashes with another Yale college namesake, Timothy Dwight IV, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale. Calhoun had studied under Dwight, and the two debated the merits of strong federalism versus republicanism. After one heated exchange, Dwight declared, “You seem to possess a most unfortunate bias for error.”

I would have loved an annual debate, cosponsored by Timothy Dwight College and the former Calhoun College, on the proper balance of federalism and republicanism within our democracy. Each year could have brought different issues and speakers to take sides, and to draw from the thought of the two namesakes. I doubt that Calhoun’s infamy was what held Yale back from this sort of idea. I don’t expect them to do better with Grace Hopper or with the two new colleges slated to open next year, Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray.

Why have a namesake at all, if the college is not to be colored by his or her character? In my own college, Jonathan Edwards, there was never a mention of the Puritan preacher’s theology—except that our intramural team was called the Spiders, a reference to his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. Jonathan Edwards’s theology exists for J.E. students only as a quaint, even comical, historical artifact. Why give a man the trappings of honor without ceding him any respect?

John C. Calhoun, in being removed, was awarded an odd sort of honor: His ideas were treated as relevant and dangerous. It’s good for a university to have a strong enough identity that not all statesmen are appropriate recipients of institutional honors. I have no problem with Yale’s choice to remove Calhoun on that basis. But it’s a shame for a school to treat its dead white male namesakes as truly dead, even to the students who sleep within the colleges’ walls.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and blogs at Patheos.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments