Jennifer Braceras, editor-in-chief of the always interesting New Boston Post, had a great article in the Wall Street Journal on a new trend in political correctness: contextualizing. Contextualizing provides a way to keep historic memorials in public places, but to utterly deprive them of any historical truth.
The latest candidate for contextualizing is Williams College's Haystack Monument, a pillar in the chapel to mark the spot upon which four Williams students in 1806 pledged to spread the Gospel (those were the days!). Despite its offensive past, the monument drew students to pray there in the wake of 9/11 and student body appears to be ignorant or not bothered by its offensive past.
Williams had previously contextualized a mural of the college's founder Col. Ephraim Williams and Mohawk leader Hendrick Theyanoguin, who were military allies. The mural shows the two going over war plans together. It was said by an aggrieved student that the mural “white-washes the broader history of the era.” The mural was temporarily covered, but then somebody got the bright idea to contextualize it instead. Among the suggestions on how to contextualize the mural: invite indigenous peoples to the campus to give their feelings about the mural.
Now, a committee is charged with determining whether the Haystack Monument makes the campus unwelcoming and, if so, how might the monument be contextualized? Jennifer writes:
Williams seems to be adopting what is known in the academy as “contextualization”—a way to preserve history while providing alternate perspectives. In theory, it seeks to honor the principles of free speech, open debate and rigorous inquiry that are the hallmarks of a liberal education. In practice, however, contextualization often turns into an exercise in self-flagellation that provides the professional victim class the soapbox on which to air its latest grievances.
How might Williams go about “contextualizing” the Haystack Monument?
The monument’s bicentennial celebration in 2006 provides clues. The weekend events included twilight vespers, panel discussions on the meaning of mission work today, and Sunday worship services. But the event also featured a critical reflection in which Prof. Denise Buell argued that Christian missionary work is “a justification” for violent forms of cultural imperialism.
All of this reflects what Glenn Shuck, a scholar who taught courses on the history of Christianity at Williams for over a decade, calls the college’s “ironic relationship” with the monument: It is a memorial to something important that happened on campus—but not something of which the college’s faculty is necessarily proud. According to Mr. Shuck, many Williams faculty members regard efforts to translate the Bible into other languages to spread Christianity as inherently racist and imperialist, a view he does not share.
The irony is that the Haystack Monument (and likely the mural) do not make the campus less welcoming:
Despite the recent media tempest about the Haystack Monument, the statue seems relatively uncontroversial among students. I spoke with about 15 students walking by the monument this week, and none knew what it represented. Once told, not one took offense.
Why would a college undertake a review of spaces and structures about which there is no current controversy? Perhaps, as class of ’62 graduate Herbert A. Allen Jr. wrote in a letter to The Williams Record, the college is simply trying “to stay ahead of intellectual lynch mobs.” But in suggesting, even inadvertently, that an unobtrusive monument to Christian missionary work is offensive, Williams has lent legitimacy to the perpetually aggrieved and has risked encouraging the piqued mob.
Putting it all in context, the frightened administrators may take action against an offenseive landmark that that doesn't actually offend anyone, except for perhaps a few academics.