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.
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