Are we doing enough to preserve our history?

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By Nick DAngelo

Few students on campus knew his name. Despite being one of the most prominent alumni in the last half-century, his sizeable reputation was mostly forgotten. Arnold Burns, who graduated from Union in 1950, rose to become the number two prosecutor in the United States of America. In 1986, Mr. Burns was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as Deputy Attorney General of the U.S. Justice Department. His passing last week at age 83 marks the end of an important era at our college.

The same year he accepted Reagan’s appointment, Mr. Burns ended his long tenure as chairman of the Board of Trustees. A true reformer of campus life, some of the routines we students take for granted were part of his vigorous effort, including renovations of Reamer Campus Center and Alumni Gym and the implementation of the General Education requirements. But few of us are aware of that. Few of us also know the important role he played in American history, resigning in protest from his high-profile post at the height of the Iran Contra Affair.

There is so much history here at Union, spanning the course of three centuries, that it can sometimes be difficult to put it into perspective. For the most part, Union does a tremendous job in preserving and portraying our impressive history.

The Ramée Plan is just a single example, emphasizing only one of many “firsts” that Union College can claim. Last year, the campus also welcomed Walter Stahr, the renowned author of Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensible Man. Seward is perhaps Union’s most famous alumnus, graduating in 1820 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, before becoming a U.S. Senator, Governor of New York, presidential candidate and one of the most highly regarded Secretaries of State in American history. And yet, events like Stahr’s visit are one-time, isolated occurrences.

On a daily basis, current students are hardly reminded of the important and lasting legacy that stands all around us. Yes, we see the statue of Chester A. Arthur everyday and we know the familiar names of Reamer, Wold and Breazzano, but that’s mostly it. The question is: Are we doing enough to preserve and promote these incredible segments of our past?

British historian J.C.D. Clark in his 1990 article “National Identity, State Formation and Patriotism: The Role of History in the Public Mind” notes the difficulties countries experience in preserving history and creating a sense of identity through it. Clark argues that one of the greatest problems is choosing what exactly to promote, dividing the categories into subjects within the public arena or within sub-groups. Adapting this to our own campus, it would be a choice between changing administrative policies, the impact on the political landscape and economic developments or a focus on the evolution of individual sects within the community.

To Clark, “history is more than just a set of techniques,” and without a set formula of what to preserve or how to portray it, the desired narrative becomes difficult to effectively form. But that must not stop us from trying.

A corollary to my column  on Sept. 26 “We may never see their like again: in defense of the Holocaust History Mini-term,” preserving past history is an important step to fostering a modern identity. Anthropologist Jonathan Friedman in The Past in the Future (1992) writes, “History is a way of producing identity insofar as it produces a relation between that which supposedly occurred in the past and the present state of affairs.” For the most part, Union already does this quite well, and it is important to note that we have never shied away from our long history. We can still do more, though.

It starts with an appreciation for those who have come before us — the thousands of alumni who have left the gates of Union to have a meaningful impact on this world. These are individuals like Mr. Burns, who the New York Times wrote last week “may have left the more lasting impression” for his fight for reform against the Justice Department.

How many of us know the role Robert Porter Patterson, class of 1912, played during the end of World War II and the transition to the Cold War? How many of us know the relationship between the current Governor of Hawaii and Union? How many of us know the intertwining college history on both sides of the struggle during the Civil War? All of this, and more, is something we must value. The interest must also belong to the students, who must never forget the community they are a part of.

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