A Warning About History Erasure


In keeping with this morning’s post about “anti-racism,” WJAR reports today that the University of Rhode Island is preparing to erase a mural that has graced the walls of the Memorial Union for seven decades:

When veterans returned from World War II and enrolled at URI, they and other URI community members raised money in memory of those who lost their lives in the war.

Money raised was for a modern student union, which gave it the name, Memorial Union.

[Artist] Arthur “Art” Sherman was a decorated returning veteran and member of the class of 1950…

The murals depict servicemen returning to Kingston, a class reunion, URI commencement, a South County beach scene, and students piled into a jalopy wearing letter sweaters.

The story creates a vivid contrast in real life that mirrors popular social media memes comparing 18-year-olds who went to war in that era with the 18-year-olds going to college in ours:

“I have received complaints about the murals that portray a very homogeneous population predominately the persons painted and depicted on the wall are predominantly white and that does not represent who our institution is today,” said [Vice President of Student Affairs, Kathy] Collins. “Some of our students have even shared with us they didn’t feel comfortable sitting in that space.”

The problem, here, isn’t so much the removal of the mural.  As Sherman says (while demurring from stating his feelings about removal of his art), “time goes by and things change.”  The problem is the motivation and the approach.

In a word, the move is negatory, not additive.  We’re raising generations of children who, as young adults, can be made uncomfortable by a fun scene from the ’50s, and their solution is to complain.  Then, the administration’s solution is to capitulate and respond by erasing the history.

How many creative alternatives could be found if our society were not so far deteriorated?  Imagine if alumni from multiple generations of URI graduates were invited to paint their own characters on Plexiglas that would be attached to the wall to add them to the mural.  Or maybe free-standing statues or two-dimensional figures could be added throughout the space that produce a complete picture when viewed from a particular angle.  Or maybe, the art could become interactive, like one of those old puzzles where different layers of drawings can be placed over others to create still-coherent, but sometimes humorous or meaningful hybrids.  No doubt, multiple creative people could come up with better ideas.

And if a portion of the original mural had to give way to make space for the modification, objections would be minimal because of the wholly different angle from which the change was approached.

The principle we desperately need to reclaim is this:  While we shouldn’t set the past in immutable stone as if it was perfect and inviolable, erasing it should not be our default choice.

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Of the following two issues related to Rhode Island’s public schools, which one is a greater concern?

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