The latest outbreak of the nationwide academic craziness epidemic is occurring at prestigious Princeton University, and seems to mainly be about expunging the institution’s past association with President Woodrow Wilson, so we have very mixed feelings about the matter. As stuffy old prairie Republican autodidacts we have no patience for the campus hijinks of pampered Ivy Leaguers, and any attempts to expunge the past are an affront to our Burkean sensibilities, but of course we can’t resist some satisfaction in seeing Wilson’s reputation at long last under assault from the left.
Way back in the days of our public education Wilson was still regarded by our approved textbooks’ opinion as the exemplar of progressivism. There was some embarrassed acknowledgement that he led the country into World War I, and that his populist rival William Jennings Bryan had quit his post as Secretary of State in protest of the still-debated decision, and that certain provisions of the Constitution were effectively repealed by the Sedition Act for the duration of the war, but otherwise Wilson always seemed to come in a close second to President Franklin Roosevelt as one of the Democratic Party’s great presidents. Back then Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were duly acknowledged as Republican rivals, even if Lincoln’s unabashed capitalism and constitutionalism were always unmentioned while T.R.’s more free-wheeling progressivism was always stressed, but Wilson was very much a member of that same presidential pantheon. Wilson was acknowledged as the father of a newfound philosophy that would bring war-time coordination of industrial efficiencies to peacetime economies through the latest scientific power over human nature, and bring eternal peace through a League of Nations if only the Treaty of Versailles weren’t too harsh on those poor Germans and Ottomans, and of course you know he was once President of prestigious Princeton University, in contrast to that hayseed prairie populist Bryan who didn’t even go to college and lost three elections for the Democrats and wound up as the anti-evolutionist villain in “Inherit the Wind.”.
Even at that young age, and with the usual youthful yearning for heroes and all the addling effects of a public school education, it all seemed rather suspicious. Being seditious sorts we read beyond the approved textbooks to learn that Wilson’s war-time restrictions on the Constitution were seemingly intended to last well into peace-time, that the post-war economy never really recovered until the the hated Coolidge’s “return to normalcy,” that the whole government-economy idea never has worked out, and that the League of Nations didn’t prevent a World War II, and probably not because the Treaty of Versailles was too mean to the Germans. We were also unsurprised to learn that Wilson was an unapologetic racist who praised the Ku Klux Klan and re-segregrated the federal government after policies that had been imposed by Republicans from Roosevelt all the way back to such supposed Republican retrogrades as Ulysses S Grant. By that point we were even cynical of that Princeton pedigree, which still loomed large in the Wilson myth.
All of which further mixes our feelings regarding the current controversy at Princeton University. The students demanding his name be banished from the university’s history don’t seem concerned with all those dead doughboys of World War I, who were no doubt war-monger Republicans, and they aren’t the least offended by his disregard of the right of free expression, which is currently all the rage on America’s campuses, and certainly not by his cocksureness that such Ivy League educated gentlemen as himself could more efficiently run an economy than a society of free men and women, which is taken as a given, but rather all that racism. So far as we can tell all the World War I stuff that so troubled our textbook-writers is long forgotten, but that infamous White House screening of “A Birth of Nation” and the re-segregation of the federal government and all the rest of the old-school stone-cold racist stuff can no longer be overlooked. Our reading of the history that most of the current Princetonians have probably never read suggests that America’s game-changing entry into World War I was about the only saving grave of Wilson’s presidency, given the Lusitania and all the other sunken American ships and the German campaign of sabotage on American soil and intercepted Zimmerman memo that outlined a plot by Germany to revanche the southwest quadrant of the United States to Mexico and the possibility of longtime allies France and England falling to a world order dictated by Prussian militarism, and that even Wilson’s idealistic and utterly naive post-war diplomatic blunders do not deny him some credit for sending in those doughboys.
Even the most Orwellian efforts cannot change the fact that Wilson was once the President of Princeton University, too, and that it was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career. A presidential trivia question that always stumps our liberal friends is what two United States Presidents previously served as presidents of Ivy League universities, and they’re never able to recall that one was Dwight Eisenhower, who briefly served as president of Columbia University after a more noteworthy career in the military and before a more noteworthy two terms as President of the United States, they all know that Woodrow Wilson was once President of Princeton University, although they never remember he also served as Governor of New Jersey. That famous connection once added a certain sheen to Wilson’s reputation, and in turn his formerly textbook-approved standing once added to Princeton’s prestige, so we wonder if the protesters demanding his repudiation understand how their actions might diminish the economic value of the Princeton degrees they’ll probably wind up with. The whole effort reminds us of the ancient and recent Islamist conquerers who immediately set about destroying all the artifacts of the civilizations that preceded them, or the Khmer Rouge that proclaimed a Day One of history after its slaughter, or the villains in every dystopian novel or movie who set out to re-write the past and all its good examples and dire warnings. or even those more benign and seemingly well-intention efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from the top of the Gen. Robert E. Lee muscle car in the old “Dukes of Hazard” television show, although in one of these cases was anyone so bold as to throw away the prestige of an Ivy League degree.
Although we revile the anti-constitutional authoritarianism and economic control and credentialed elitism and outright racism of Woodrow Wilson, we can’t help thinking he’d be pleased with his legacy in both international affairs and academia. His greatest hope of the post-war era was that American subordination to some sort of international tribunal would yield international peace, an an ephemera still chased after by his bi-racial and supposedly post-racial successor, and during his tenure as President of Princeton his pedagogical philosophy was that “The purpose of a university should be to make a man as unlike his father as possible.” All of Wilson’s dreams seem to have to been finally achieved, and nobody on either the left or right seems at all happy about it. Our feelings, certainly, are mixed.
— Bud Norman