Yale University just completed a “denaming” process similar to what University of Oregon President Michael Schill is contemplating for Deady Hall and Dunn Hall. In predictable academic fashion, Yale found a way to split the difference. They chose to retain the name for Calhoun College, but dropped the traditional title of “master” and replaced it with “head of college” for each of its residential colleges.
Oregon can follow that path by renaming the more recent Dunn Hall and retaining Deady Hall. But there’s an opportunity here to dig a little deeper in a way that both affirms the university’s mission and deeply engages its students.
Everyone agrees that learning without history is nonsensical. Learning is cumulative. It builds on what’s already known. When an instructor designs curriculum to build toward student discovery or a researcher draws on colleagues’ findings to further her own work, each stands on the shoulders of what’s been done.
New work sometimes exposes errors or shortcomings in the old work. Learning progresses when its trajectory is not slavishly linear. Past work is not erased. It is corrected.
Pursuit of knowledge requires modesty. Every theory carries with it an invitation to be disproved or bettered by those who follow. It must be that way, or learning won’t continue. When learning stops, the university will ask only that the last one to leave should turn out the lights and recycle the pizza boxes.
Progressive learning adds context to what is known, by setting it against what was known before. Of all the life skills being taught in schools, contextualizing information is right up there with home economics for basic survival. Context elicits modesty’s cousin, empathy. It’s good to know where thoughts and people are coming from.
Context is what we’ve gained from the scholarly work Schill commissioned to inform his upcoming decision. Matthew Deady “had a very complicated intellect that defies a simple summary,” the analysis concluded.
Exactly. So how can the university promote complicated intellects? Wrestling with conflicting values is at the core of its enterprise. Wherever the past and future meet, the threshold for learning is set.
Sometimes to think outside the box, it’s useful to peek inside.
The most important space inside a building has no space at all. It is a line, or as the mathematicians housed in Deady Hall may insist, a line segment. There’s a line that separates the outside from the inside. Remove that line and the building becomes a sculpture — an entirely different thing.
That line is called the threshold. It brings outsiders in. It sends insiders out. A building’s threshold is like the present moment. Each does not literally exist, except to separate old from new, out from in. The threshold is the teachable space.
Names themselves have a threshold, an invisible line that separates the thing from its meaning. Apple means fruit, but only to those who speak English, unless it means computer. The name changes, but the fruit does not.
Matthew Deady made a name for himself as a judge and a founder of the University of Oregon. But he also was given a name — that same name — by his parents, Daniel and Mary Ann. Each provides context for the other.
Which of those identical names is the one borne by the university’s oldest building? Let us stipulate it is named for the man. Let us also affirm that the man’s reputation is mutable, open to correction and improvement — as everything we learn should be.
Keep the name on the outside of the building, but use the inside of the building’s threshold to convey the ever-changing reputation of the man. Let those who lobbied for the change be the ones to change the lobby.
They may install mock signs to separate students by race. Adorn its walls with Deady’s most damning words. Sign students up for good seats to an imagined lynching.
It won’t settle the controversy. It will perpetuate it. An excellent university must engage young minds and foster active spirits. No one is completely the same, inside and out. Context matters. Schill can open that door to a vital life lesson.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.