Denaming the Huxley College of the Environment, Part 2

T.H. Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley. Reproduction of drawing by T. B. Wirgman, 1882. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

The plan to rename Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University may be gathering steam. As we noted in our earlier article, this plan seems to be an exercise in presentism, by which we mean applying the moral and ethical standards of today to historical figures as if they were aware of them. Less delicately, you might say that presentism is using (or misusing) the moral and ethical standards of today to condemn historical figures and dismiss their achievements. (Indeed, according to the Report cited below, “Some Task Force members questioned how ethical and consensual Huxley’s ethnological methodologies were and evaluated them as failing to meet the University’s contemporary standards for academic integrity [p. 5].” This is presentism at its worst.)

The earlier PT article cited above gives the background to the current controversy. Since that article was published, however, the Legacy Review Task Force sent its report to the president, Sabah Randhawa. The “Recommendation Regarding Huxley College of the Environment” is Section 2.1 of the report and occupies pp. 5-13. The president’s cover letter, which we obtained from a faculty member, is noncommittal.

The Summary section of the report says of Huxley,

First, the Task Force unanimously recommends that the Board of Trustees remove T.H. Huxley’s name from the College the Environment. T.H. Huxley accomplished a great deal as a scholar during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his ethnological accomplishments were grounded in white supremacist values that dehumanize and harm many members of the Western community. The Task Force concluded that his legacy conflicts with the university’s current mission.

The President of WWU has made statements by historians of science and others concerning Huxley’s work and views available at a resources webpage. We call attention to the contrast between the views of Nicolaas Rupke and Paul White; and also to the article in WWU’s AS Review which objected to using Huxley’s name.

A group of faculty at Huxley, with help from several of us on the outside, are organizing to oppose the name change. One such faculty member has asked us, in effect, to crowd-source their response. We also are open to hearing that we should not oppose the name change, particularly if you can say why. Thus, the following questions, which you may respond to in the comments:

  1. Does the report propagate untruths about Huxley?

  2. Most English intellectual figures of Huxley's time probably favored what today we would call racism, imperialism, sexism, and oppression of working people. Although slavery was abolished in England in 1833, the British elite nevertheless supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Did Huxley, who was an abolitionist and an important and fervent advocate of making education available to all, favor or oppose these evils? Was he unusual in that regard? Was he involved in efforts to oppose them?

  3. Does the Huxley section of the report accept creationist myths about the relationship between evolutionary biology and racism? Specifically, what are those myths? How do they relate to Huxley?

  4. Can anyone point out additional materials or resources that should be taken into account?

  5. Is there any major intellectual figure from the 1800's or even the 1900's whose activities or views are so pure that it is acceptable to name something after them?

Whereas a name is only symbolic, we consider the matter to be of some importance, if only because we do not want to give in to demands based on unfounded allegations, or allegations that dismiss all the positive achievements associated with an important individual. If an influential scholar such as Huxley can be condemned, who is next? Are we going to develop a “fatal flaw” theory of history, where having one transgression makes it wrong to note their other major accomplishments? Washington enslaved people; should Western Washington University have “Washington” in its name? If we are impressed by someone’s scientific work, by saying that do we automatically attempt to cover up unpleasant facts about their other views? Let us hear from you.