Western philosophy has tied moral decency with intellectual capacity. In short, a person who wants to live the good life probably needs some knowledge of what good is. Unsurprisingly, a person seeking this knowledge might begin at a place promising all sorts of knowledge: the modern university.
There are some problems with this approach. The antagonists of the last few centuries — those who enjoyed massive systems of murder and plunder and slavery and apartheid — usually came from “enlightened” places, including here.
The University of Mississippi — founded for the slavers’ sons — has employed, educated and empowered some of the cruelest people to walk this continent. It has done so openly and lovingly. The suffering caused by this school might be immeasurable, but measure it we must. The need for a reckoning has always been here and has never passed.
The University of Mississippi has one curriculum, and Ole Miss has another. Much of what this school has taught me, including Chebyshev’s theorem and mitochondria’s functions, will fall away, leaving me neither better nor worse. And much of what this place has required me to learn, like that the health of a society should be judged by the record of the nearest football team, will fester. In my final year as an undergraduate, my conviction is that both curricula must be amended.
With a strange irony, I believe that this place might be uniquely equipped to render minds more full. This school must graduate students prepared to face our desperate present in spite of and because of our horrific past. The University of Mississippi is able to educate, to lead others out of ignorance, so long as it is willing.
Yet, at every turn, we have shown the depths of our unwillingness to learn about ourselves. Faculty members who criticize institutional racism have faced institutional censorship; movements to take the names of slaveholders off of buildings have found little traction with the administration; plaques meant simply to contextualize those names have faced significant backlash. This unwillingness is not all that surprising. Education can be a painful process. Still, it is difficult to learn about a place that will not learn about itself. If you cannot learn something in credit hours, you must learn it on your own time.
There is a great deal of work about the University of Mississippi, and much of it comes from within the university itself. What follows are a few of the pieces that I appreciate. Radiolab released a podcast episode this past summer that explores the fight over the state flag. It includes an interview with John Hawkins, a former Black Student Union president who became the first Black cheerleader at the school in 1982 and refused to carry a Confederate flag at football games. The Southern Documentary Project details James Meredith’s integration of the university in 1962 and the ensuing crisis in this film. The University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group conducts research about the history of slavery on campus and offers tours of the same. Lessons like these should be a graduation requirement for all students, but until that happens, we are on our own.
Will a podcast episode stop white supremacists from marching on campus? Will a documentary stop some students from putting a noose on a statue of James Meredith? Will a guided history tour stop other students from posing beside the bullet-riddled sign marking where Emmet Till’s body was found? I doubt that a new curriculum would be enough, but a new curriculum is needed. These are the histories with which the university must reckon. This is the education which we should demand.
John Hydrisko is a senior English, philosophy and history major from Philadelphia, Penn.