Why are there no names of women up on the architrave of Butler Library? The story goes that a cadre of white Columbia men got together and brainstormed their favorite authors from Lit Hum to hoist up on the building.
But this wasn’t the case. It turns out that one architect was in charge of the entire design: James Gamble Rogers, who also designed other European-style buildings at Yale and Northwestern in the early 1900s. He was catering to the status quo, and it made sense: White men went to school, and the University architecture reflected that.
Things are different now. For one, we know that an educational environment that manifestly represents the diversity of the people within it allows for greater inclusion and strengthens interest in education. This is why teachers are starting to teach Latin American history in inner city schools, why we’ve built the Malcolm X Lounge, and why there’s been a steady rise of feminine pronouns in newly written texts. If we insist on keeping a tradition of placing the ancients on our pedestals, let’s at least make an effort to diversify them so that they are representative of our collective heroes.
One night this past summer, “Jack”—a recent General Studies graduate and my OKCupid date—and I were perched on one of the outer benches of Low Plaza when we encountered the umpteenth awkward moment of the night. I stuffed the remainder of a Klondike Crunchy Taco into my mouth and made some of the last gratuitous conversation of the night: “I hate those names,” I exaggerated. “It makes greatness seem so far away, like I need to be a 2,000-year-old Greek guy to be considered great.” He disagreed, reciting the spiel about how “those men were really great because they set the foundations for Western civilization and thought.” I’m not entirely certain what this abstract phraseology means, but it’s often thrown around whenever someone tries to defend those names.
Greatness, to most people, is an arbitrary category fixed onto figures whose names are most often repeated in college classrooms. The great people who are pointed out to us, whom we then point out, are great as a result of that pointing.
But say we could start over. Say we could take a second to consider what greatness means and what it means to have a name displayed at the center of our campus. What reminder do we want to engrave onto our library walls?
Maybe it’s Virginia Woolf’s quaking honesty and critique of privilege when she wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Or maybe it’s Sojourner Truth’s valiant journey to protect human dignity, where she braved the hell of the early 1800s—a time when she was an “object less worthy” to the ruling class.
The men currently on the architrave thought up some of the most socially transformative concepts in history, but many were also sexist and wrote only for men. And yes, we could say that they were just a product of their times, but this sort of excuse wavers in light of those who went against societal norms and strove for greater equality for all. They too could have been excused as products of their time, but instead, they did things like end slavery and expand voting rights. I’m certainly not trying to trivialize Aristotle. I don’t think that’s possible. I’m just trying to say that male-centric architecture is a type of segregation and that the issue of raising women’s names to the architrave neither has to be a big deal nor needs to be considered in the context of university finances and “Can we afford that?”
Perhaps we’re hesitant because we’re afraid that the heroes we could choose now aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things and the people who think Plato is important are more right than us in determining who’s great. But greatness is tough to quantify when everyone comes from a wide range of educational, ethnic, economic, cultural, and sexual backgrounds. Also, Plato just happens to have really good PR.
But fine, if we don’t want to alter the architrave and would rather maintain it as a relic of the past, then, going forward, we should at least think more broadly when considering the buildings and names that the people on campus will pass every day on their way to class.
Just as we are diversifying college admissions and opening up our syllabi, we should similarly diversify the architecture. This is not only a positive step toward greater representation, but can also be an important step in making this university a truer embodiment of what it has come to represent: inclusivity, worldliness, and progress.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in psychology and political science.
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