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Kravitz’s Korner | Keep the Cornell Plantations Name

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Recently, The University of Chicago notified first-year students that it does not support trigger warnings or safe spaces, going against the current trend in a higher-education system that has been characterized by suppression of uncomfortable ideas. But just when it seemed that the tides had started to turn, Cornell University doubled down on the coddling culture that has consumed American campuses by capitulating to the demands of certain students, with the director of the Cornell Plantations, Christopher Dunn, announcing that he will be recommending the Board of Trustees to rename the Cornell Plantations to the Cornell Botanic Gardens.

Black Students United demanded that the name be changed because the word “plantations” invokes imagery of black slavery and causes distress among students. Never mind the fact that there was never a black slave plantation in the state of New York. Never mind the fact that there’s no evidence of Cornell using the name of the Plantations as a means of condoning slavery. Never mind the fact that the Plantations received its name in 1944, almost 80 years after the abolition of slavery, by Liberty Hyde Bailey, a renowned horticulturist whose name is dedicated to racial equality and whose parents were staunch abolitionists. Indeed, there isn’t a rational reason to connect the Cornell Plantations to a southern slave plantation, but by some leap of the imagination, the Cornell Plantations has come to supposedly represent anti-black bigotry and white hegemony.

In the end, this issue is about how many students feel, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. And in this case, feelings have started to block out rational thinking. It is well-known among psychologists that one of the best ways to restore rational thinking involves “describ[ing] the facts of the situation, consider[ing] alternative interpretations, and then choos[ing] an interpretation of events more in line with those facts,” with the ultimate goal of “minimizing distorted thinking and see[ing] the world more accurately,” according to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind. In essence, this technique involves confronting disturbing things head on and cogitating. So when it comes to the Cornell Plantations, the University should be encouraging students to consider interpretations of the name that highlight its purely innocuous nature.

Unfortunately, Cornell has chosen the opposite route by indulging in the utterly unfounded emotional paranoias of students as opposed to educating them on the true meaning of the Plantations. The name change validates students who allow emotions to cloud their thinking, makes situations like this more likely, and erases the legacy of a family devoted to ending institutionalized racism. My hope is that the Cornell community recognizes the importance of critically engaging with potentially uncomfortable ideas as opposed to avoiding them entirely.

 

15 comments

  • I honestly thought the initial article on the name change was satire when I first saw it

  • You say: “Never mind the fact that there was never a black slave plantation in the state of New York.” Unfortunately this idea of the early history of New York is all too common (and wrong). There were certainly enslaved individuals living in New York well into the 19th century, since all enslaved people in the state weren’t freed until 1827. The African Burial Ground in NYC, in use through the late eighteenth century, is a potent reminder that people were living (and dying) in slavery throughout this time. Even closer to Ithaca, two prominent Geneva, NY families moved to New York in the early 19th century from tidewater Virginia with 40-some enslaved people and re-created southern plantation agriculture in the north. In 1817 larger political currents in favor of emancipation effectively ended their efforts, but it definitely happened. Try reading Kathryn Grover’s Make a Way Somehow: African-American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965.

  • Changing the name is nothing more than ignorant pandering, something that is beneath the dignity of a great university.

  • I have many pleasant memories of the Cornell Plantations, and I know that the current facilities exist due the the hard work of many paid staff members and the contributions of many generous donors. None of this has anything to do with slavery. Changing the name on the mistaken premise that there is a relationship between the Cornell Plantations and slavery diminishes all of the work and generosity that built this great institution.

    There are many unique things about Cornell that may not apply to other campuses. We happen to have named our botanical garden the Cornell Plantations. If one or more students fail to appreciate Cornell culture, including the history and naming of the Cornell Platations, then those students should not have any standing to demand name changes.

    There were many causes worth fighting regarding Cornell’s role in society – divestment from companies that invested in South Africa, and closing Cornell’s migrant farm labor camp to name two examples. However, the students who came up with “rename Cornell Plantations” as their top demand really don’t understand Cornell history or the nature of social change.

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