The University of Notre Dame asks in its promotional videos “What would you fight for?” The rhetorical question expresses a proud institutional commitment to stand for what is right, good, and true. However, in their decision earlier this year to cover a dozen murals depicting the life of Columbus, the school president, Father John Jenkins, and the Fellows of the university have shown no fight for our history as nation, rational public discourse, or the wonder of American civilization. They have failed in their duty as teachers and custodians of a great university with a unique legacy. In the larger scheme of life, this controversy may seem insignificant (how many people know or care how the walls of a university building in Indiana are decorated?), but it is yet another skirmish in a more destructive and widespread cultural insurrection. Apart from the liberal professoriate and progressive ideologues, few would understand how these representations of the intrepid explorer and missionary impulse of the Gospel could merit an objection.
Yet, when the university leadership was confronted by the cultural janissaries shouting about identity and injury, they proved embarrassingly supine. What could have been a “teaching moment” (in the parlance of modern liberals) became another occasion for the administration of progressive judgment: tribute was given, treasure was lost, and the history once considered glorious was confessed in shame. This loss was not parochial but national. Another monument to our shared history has been removed to order the world along destructive ideological lines.
The murals were commissioned in the 1880s to celebrate an epochal event which had an extra dimension of meaning for a rising Catholic university sustained by an immigrant population. Of the twelve works in questions, only three have a representation of Native Americans. Fr. Jenkins argues that “many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’s voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this ‘new’ world and at worst demeaning toward them.” It is hard to see how a reasonable rendering of the natural contrasts between different peoples of the time could be troubling. The reference to the “many” is an obfuscation that endorses feeling as a quality of decision instead of reason (and it ignores the greater many who find this decision a travesty).
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Moreover, it is disingenuous to insist that the paintings are blind to the tragic dimensions of history. They were not created to right a wrong, but to celebrate a triumphant moment in history and Christian culture. It is that culture, more than any other, that has demonstrated an ability to be self-critical and to grow in justice and compassion for all. There can be no doubt, for example, that every member of the Notre Dame community for the last generation or more has been tutored in the injustices suffered by indigenous and other peoples.
It is undeniable that the encounter with Europeans proved to be tragic in many respects. However, the awful dimensions of that encounter cannot be attributed but in small measure to Columbus. He is not responsible for all that followed his arrival in the Americas, though it is hard to see how the chronicle of events since then would not be a credit to him. Nevertheless, as he wrote very few pages of the history that followed, it is clear to see that Columbus has become a scapegoat for all the regrettable consequences of American civilization. Would Notre Dame wish that Europeans had never planted their flag and faith in the New World? Covering the murals seeks cheap grace and strikes a weak pose of virtue. It does not enlighten or encourage harmony. It concedes the initiative to those who tear at the fabric of our society and encourages ever more social antagonism.
In all these controversies, there is a sense of manufactured outrage. Given modern pedagogy and its emphasis on group identity, power relationships, and historical grievance, many of the artifacts of our history have been endowed with a previously unknown power. Unfortunately, that new power drives accusation and outrage, instead of reflection and thoughtful discussion. Indeed, to question the new learning is an occasion for the “many” to support the regime of ignorance and oppression. Still, it is hard to see how the mere representation of Columbus and some archaic and uncritical illustrations of Native Americans—far from unique or unusual in our public art—undermine the well-being of anyone today. It is a sad commentary on the state of academic communities, not to mention society at large, that we ask so little of our students when they are confronted with the complexities of life and history. The wrinkles and scars of our humanity can only be viewed, if at all, in a “safe space.”
Fr. Jenkins allows that the murals have some merit, though he seems to suggest an antiquarian value which reflects the benighted views of an earlier generation. He argues that their location in the Main Building, “a busy throughway for visitors and members of the University community,” does not allow for “thoughtful consideration.” One might have thought, then, that few would find them objectionable if the pace of life in that place makes it hard to register an impression, but let’s not quibble over contradictions. Nevertheless, we must assume that the leaders at Notre Dame were articulating a principle for wider consideration.
Given this assumption, they might want to consider that in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, a relatively more important thoroughfare by any measure, we see several similarly problematic murals, namely, “The Baptism of Pocahontas,” another rendering of “The Landing of Columbus,” and “The Discovery of the Mississippi” by de Soto. Shall we now audit all our public buildings, schools, and community monuments for the suggestion of offense? There is nothing wrong with the natural effort of succeeding generations to understand and interpret our history. What is so disturbing about that effort today is the lack of understanding that accompanies it. So many seek to condemn rather than understand, to prosecute instead of appreciate, and to judge instead of conciliate. There is no limit to the awful consequences that a wider endorsement of Fr. Jenkins’s action would wreak on our society.
The enormous bequest of treasure left by generations long gone records the vast expanse, both good and bad, of our national life. There are expressions of local, regional, and national memory and sentiment. They give measures of evidence large and small for who we were and where we have come from. In most cases, they hold their place in peace and quiet and make little difference to daily life. With few exceptions, they deserve our respect as couriers from another era with a message that can change over time and, to be fair, may occasionally grow darker. To pull them down, cover them up, or remove them from the public square is an act of vandalism and dishonesty. Once we start down this path, there will be no end to the process of destruction not just of our inheritance as a people, but of the peace in our society among those who inevitably view and value things differently.
There is a dangerous strain of generational superiority in what passes for intellectual life today. It allows for no understanding of the experience of people, most of whom are unknown to history, or those circumstances we comprehend only vaguely. It seems to be emotionally intoxicating for some to gallop through the past laying heavy sentences in righteous anger. These ideologues seem to rise among us only because they have laid low so much. We should all beware. And the administration at Notre Dame would do well to remember that the missions that line the west coast of the United States, the tributes without number across Latin America raised to the Virgin Mary, and the transformation of the indigenous culture by Christian Europeans all followed the arrival of Columbus. The advance of the Gospel was, sadly, not without a measure of violence and tragedy. One would have thought that the leaders at Notre Dame, of all places, would understand that this is a fallen world. As a result, we must live with a measure of forgiveness, not only for one another today, but for those who came before us. There is no peaceful reckoning with the progressive ordering of society. The vandals will eventually come seeking to pull down Our Lady from the golden dome of the university unless we fight for our history and share it with understanding and sympathy.
(Photo credit: University of Notre Dame)