Dead to History

erasing pastA movement to censor our history is forming at Australian universities. Students and academics are campaigning for buildings and lecture halls to be renamed because of their association with ‘offensive’ historical figures. They no longer feel comfortable confronting, or even acknowledging, the past— instead, they want to expunge it altogether. Their first target is the renaming of the Richard Berry building at the University of Melbourne.

Richard Berry revolutionised the teaching of anatomy in Melbourne. He wrote the standard anatomy textbook used by students for some twenty-five years. As dean of medicine he advocated for the placement of a hospital near campus that could work closely with the university, a dream that became a reality after his departure. Berry’s contributions to teaching, as well as an administrator, were so outstanding that when a new anatomy building opened, which he designed, it was only natural to name the building after him.

Sadly, despite his capabilities, Berry, along with John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Winston Churchill, advocated for the patently racist and discredited eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Eugenicists sought to promote certain genetic traits, and discourage others, by manipulating sexual reproduction. This supposedly scientific theory was used by the Nazis to justify their atrocities.

berry richardBerry (right) researched the relationship between skull sizes and intelligence, collecting a large number of human skulls for research. He also advocated for sterilisation of Aboriginals, people with a disability, and other groups he viewed as inferior. Student union president Tyson Holloway-Clarke says the existence of a building named after him is ‘confronting and alienating situation for Indigenous students.’

The move to wipe Berry’s name from the building he designed follows in the footsteps of similar campaigns on British and American campuses. Oxford University students unsuccessfully advocated for the destruction of a Cecil Rhodes. However, their campaign failed to appreciate Rhodes’ positive legacy. The Rhodes Scholarship has provided extraordinary educational opportunities to thousands from the developing and developed world, people who would otherwise never have had the opportunity to attend such a prestigious institution. It has helped train the leaders of countless countries, including our own prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Bob Hawke.

Yes, Rhodes’ legacy, just like Berry’s, is deeply flawed. It is vital, however, that we acknowledge both the virtuous and vile in our history. Our past is neither good nor evil, rather, it reflects the varying shades of grey that make up the complexities of human character. It reflects our constant drive towards progress and developing a more compassionate society. It is vital we remember and attempt to fully understand the complexity, not seek to censor our past.

We must be careful to not project modern ideas, which simply did not exist at the time, onto history. The speed of human progress has led to an extraordinarily rapid change in cultural understandings, political values and scientific theories. The essence of historic analysis is gaining a full understanding of these changes, and the world in which historic figures lived. The alternate, applying today’s values to the past, makes it almost impossible to find any respectable historical figures for admiration or study.

It would require Labor to rename their think-tank, the Evatt Foundation, because Doc Evatt brandished a letter in Parliament from Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov falsely claiming there was no Soviet spying in Australia—a letter written by the same individual who signed the Soviet-Nazi Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Liberals would have to stop celebrating Robert Menzies because, in the height of the Cold War, he advocated for the illiberal policy of banning a political party, the Communist Party of Australia. Americans would have to abandon their constitution and bill of rights because two-thirds of the founding fathers owned slaves.

If we actually want to understand, not simply abandon, the past we must comprehend the world in which these people functioned, the threats that motivated them, and the cultural values of their time. We must understand that Evatt was motivated by a theory, albeit false, of conspiracy between the government and the security establishment to discredit Labor. We must understand that Menzies believed, based on the stated aims of Australian communists, that there was a serious clandestine threat to our democracy. And berry buildingwe must understand that the American founders lived in a time when slave ownership was common across the world. We can, and should, criticise their views and actions, but it is ahistorical to apply today’s values to figures living in a different time.

Censoring the past also hinders the educational mission of universities. These statues, buildings, and lecture halls provide an important opportunity to confront our history. Renaming buildings allows past injustices to be forgotten, to be wiped off the public memory. Leaving them in place is a good reminder and educational opportunity. Rather than rename the Richard Berry building, making him float away into the abyss of history book footnotes buried in the basement of a campus library, it would be appropriate to place a prominent plaque near the entrance of the building explaining both his contributions and abhorrent views. This would allow students to understand the fact that this person did exist, and what he actually did. It also prevents the university from taking the relatively easy step of wiping out a dark part of their history.

Ironically, the University of Melbourne has previously hosted a disability support services unit in the Richard Berry building. Some have claimed that this placement is insulting. However, the opposite is in fact true. The best way to show just how wrong Berry’s ideas were, and to display how far we have come as a society, is to act in the completely opposite manner. It is to celebrate that students from all backgrounds roam freely in the corridors of the Richard Berry building. This allows us to not forget the complexities of our past, and delivers a far more nuanced understanding of what is right and wrong.

Matthew Lesh is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs


13 thoughts on “Dead to History

  • Rob Brighton says:

    Ah, the poor petals, unable to contemplate history without heading to safe zones and demanding trigger warnings. T

    Milo Yianoppolous (apologies if the spelling is incorrect) states that any student who demands a safe space proves they have no intention of taking advantage of university life broadening horizons, exploring difficult and dangerous ideas and as such, ought to be immediately expelled as being psychologically incapable of meeting the requirements of a degree.

    I commend the guy to you, despite his personal proclivities he is erudite, witty and has no time at all for this sort of shenanigans.

  • ianl says:

    There is a madness stalking the lands …

    The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on
    All thy piety and wit will not change one line of it
    Nor all thy tears wash away one word

    [from The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam]

    Yet these fools, living off tax, believe changing a name wipes out facts. Oh dear …

  • Salome says:

    It’s French secularism run rampant, to the point that it’s become another religion that demands exclusivity in the land. I thought I read a story about nuns being run off the beach shortly after the first burqini wearer. Of course, not all that long ago the nuns would have had their heads cut off. Attacking outward symbols of a toxic ideology while allowing the intake of its followers to continue unabated is a trifle silly.

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    Concerning last century eugenics, let it be said that much – although not all – of the advocacy for it was motivated by humanitarian notions. Genetic manipulation is once again being proposed in the interest of culling disease-causing genes as a means of advancing human health and happiness. The supporters of eugenics listed in this article would have had the same motivation. The Nazis alone were actively murdering people they considered not worthy of living, while others were endeavouring to prevent them from being born.

    • johnhenry says:

      Oh, ta. I was wondering if Godwin’s Law had been invoked on this thread (see my comment below at 02:47). Thank you for sparing me the tedious duty of doing so; but your statement that “Nazis alone were actively murdering people they considered not worthy of living, while others were endeavouring to prevent them from being born” is a distinction without a difference, as a logician might say.

      On another note, the only “humanitarian” group I know of, vis-à-vis the evil practice of eugenics in the early 20th C., was the Catholic Church, which unequivocally opposed it then as it still does today.

  • IainC says:

    Need I point out that MU sponsors a Marxist conference (Marxism 20xx) on campus every Easter? Apparently funding and enabling an adherents of an ideology responsible for 100 million civilian deaths is perfectly acceptable. The Left didn’t invent hypocrisy, they just perfected it.

  • en passant says:

    Burn ALL books. We only need one.

    My autobiography

  • Warty says:

    Indeed, one cannot judge history whilst sitting on the compostable toilet which unfortunately equates with so many of today’s values. So why do so many of our simpering, sensitive undergraduates take the moral high on race, gender, ethnic minorities, indeed on any minority group that takes their fancy? Well one might say Karl Marx and Federick Engels, but that would be considered a bit more in your face, something you might apply the same to Pol Pot courtesy of his stay in Paris, during the early 1950s.
    It’d be a little more precise nailing it down to the Critical Theory that came out of the Hamburg School, the leading exponents of which took themselves off to America at breakneck speed, to put the Atlantic Ocean between themselves and mein Furher, the rather ridiculous looking bloke with the toothbrush moustache, with a tendency to gesticulate and fly off the handle. He wanted to . . . well, you know where he would liked to have sent them.
    All that stuff about deconstructionism, political correctness; efforts going into the undermining of the church, undermining the family, the education system, infiltrating the judiciary, the police, gender fluidity in the army, nonsense in the MSM; all the claptrap so de rigueur for the Greens, the inner city elites, the ‘chattering classes’, the HCR, the Labor left, the Liberal left . . . Malcolm Turnbull! Yes: the Hamburg school, and it had been percolating away under the surface amongst the Beatniks, the Sydney Push, so many of the unions, Senator McCarthy’s reds under the beds (yes, it seems they were there after all, but the MSM managed to do one hell of a job on McCarthy, now an object of ridicule; Bob Santamaria, now an object of ridicule.
    It is quite astounding what one can do when one takes the moral high ground: it gives you a sense of outraged power: you can judge pretty well whom you please if you use the right epithets: ‘homophobe’, ‘racist’, ‘imperialist’ (excepts that’s a bit old-school Marxist: the sort of thing Maozedong would say; a bit old hat). The moral high ground can even enable you to judge racists moldering in their graves: Cecil Rhodes (“turn in your grave you bastard”) Richard Berry (“may you burn in hell”).
    OK, sounds ridiculous, and it’s meant to be, yet Matthew Lesh can still talk about placing ‘a prominent plaque near the entrance of the building, explaining both his contributions and his abhorrent views’. His ‘abhorrent views’ . . . sounds like judgement to me, even if it is to ‘explain’ his contributions. I would argue that it would take more than a plaque to describe the mindset of a generation, whose beliefs were so widely different to of today, whether we’d be conservative or lunatic left. How do you explain to a young Melbourne University undergraduate why those explorers of Africa and Australia regarded the indigenous people as being utterly primitive vis a vis their own technological advances and age old civilizations; and how they might regards themselves as being infinitely more intelligent, and would like to measure skulls and weigh brains in order to satisfy themselves that this might be so. It was the way it was, and if you observe the way Mugabe has his country into the ground you might think it is still the case. You’re going to put all this on a plaque? I think that’d go down well.

  • lloveday says:

    Those wanting to whitewash Rhodes, Berry et al from history are of the same cohort as those who use Darwin’s theory (“proof” to them) of evolution to mock those who believe in Creation (or Creative Evolution).
    While not a eugenicist of Berry’s kind, Darwin had some theories about evolution, sex and race that should make him as unacceptable as Berry to the campaigning “students and academics”:

    Males are “more evolutionarily advanced than females”,
    As a married man he would be a “poor slave, . . . worse than a Negro,”,
    Some of the traits of women “are characteristic of the lower races”,
    “The average of mental power in man must be above that of women”,
    “The child, the female, and the senile white” all had the intellect and nature of the “grown up Negro”.

  • johnhenry says:

    Has Godwin’s Law been confirmed on this thread? Haven’t read the below-the-fold comments yet, but it’s tailor made for invocation of said law. Might invoke it myself if no one else has done so.

Leave a Reply