Opinion writer

Tents stand outside Princeton University’s Nassau Hall, where students were staging a sit-in on Nov. 19. The protesters from a group called the Black Justice League are demanding that the school remove the name of former school president and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from programs and buildings over what they said was his racist legacy. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

Though the protests on college campuses such as Yale University and the University of Missouri and the administrative responses to them involve a range of significant material issues, from financial aid to recruitment and retention of professors of color, the national coverage and debates about them have often come down to more symbolic questions, like whether administrators have responded quickly enough to allegations of racism or whether an e-mail was insensitive and ill-timed. The most recent front in these debates are demands surrounding honors for historic figures, including whether John C. Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson’s names should be removed from buildings and a school at Yale and Princeton University, or the statue of Cecil Rhodes that recently came down at the University of Cape Town.

Though these issues may seem symbolic, these particular objects of protest on college campuses are in part about how we determine which historical figures are worthy of honor, especially because our standards of goodness change more rapidly than we can build new facilities and construct new monuments. And behind that question is a larger and even more significant one: How do we contend with the brokenness in our past, from the personal flaws of our heroes and the atrocities behind our founding myths to the people and eras defined by great steps forward and horrible regressions?

Difficulty dealing with history is hardly a modern problem.

One of the innovations of “SPQR,” Mary Beard’s new history of Rome, is the way Beard looks at the way Roman writers approached and tried to rationalize their city’s past. One particularly contentious landmark event was the rape of the Sabine women, the mythic incident from Rome’s ancient history when Roman men were supposed to have kidnapped wives from a neighboring Italian tribe.

“They puzzled over its details, wondering, for example, how many young women were taken,” Beard writes. “Livy does not commit himself, but estimates varied from just thirty to the spuriously precise and implausibly large figure of 683 — apparently the view of the African prince Juba, who was brought to Rome by Julius Caesar and spent many of his early years there studying all kinds of learned topics, from Roman history to Latin grammar. More than anything else, though, it was the apparent criminality and violence of the incident that preoccupied them. … Was the inevitable implication that their institution of marriage originated in rape? Where did the dividing line fall between abduction and rape? What did the occasion say, more generally, about the belligerence of Rome?”

In a similar way, the Puritan pilgrims who founded Plymouth Plantation in what is now Massachusetts may have obscured some of the ugliest incidents of their first winter in America, when the survival of the colony was not assured.

William Bradford, who was the long-running governor of Plymouth, and wrote a history of the colony, “really turns away with the corpses” that were the result of disease, malnutrition and even suicide during that period, historian Katheen Donegan says in Ric Burns’s recent documentary, “The Puritans.” Cotton Mather, writing a later book about Plymouth, suggested that the settlers buried their dead at night so the surrounding Native American tribes wouldn’t know the extent of their losses. But court testimony from a man named Phineas Pratt, who arrived in 1623, suggests something far grimmer: His friends told him the Puritans propped up the dead and dying against trees in the woods and left guns with them to suggest that Plymouth had defenses it didn’t actually possess.

“What really happened gets completely dropped out of the history,” Donegan said in the film. “It is too transgressive and really dangerous.”

Both the people who advocate changing school names and taking down monuments, and those who argue for keeping them up have a case to make that their approaches force us to reckon with the most difficult parts of our histories.

“By revering and whitewashing the histories of Wilson and Rhodes, universities such as Princeton and Oxford are part of the societal matrix that feed, nourish and build up men such as these two, men whose policies have caused incalculable damage to generations of American blacks and Africans. Blacks in America and South Africa are still working to undo the damage leaders like Wilson and Rhodes inflicted,” my colleague Karen Attiah wrote of Wilson and Cecil Rhodes last week. “In forcing their sins into the international limelight, universities, and society by extension, must reevaluate the lionizing of such men.”

And writing a few days earlier, my deskmate Christine Emba suggested that the continued presence of Wilson’s name on the Princeton campus could be a useful spur to future discussions, and a constant reminder that work to undo the racist parts of Wilson’s legacy while fulfilling his internationalist vision are both ongoing and both incomplete. “As a black Princeton graduate who studied at the Woodrow Wilson School, it’s easy for me to sympathize with the protesters and condemn a man who wouldn’t have wanted me at his university at all,” she mused. “But then again, maybe I contribute to a new understanding every time my name is paired with his.”

Whatever approach we take, we’re better off for acknowledging that the institutions that students and alumni are fighting for — and fighting over — today are great and worth improving not because they’re pure, but because they’ve made progress over their flawed pasts. Yale can’t undo the fact that it educated John C. Calhoun, but it can do a better job of educating the people who will undo his legacy.

Maybe we haven’t figured out the definitive answer to the questions Livy and Cotton Mather grappled with in the centuries and even millenia before us. But if we’re asking difficult questions about how best to confront the complexities of the past, rather than telling stories intended to eliminate that complexity altogether, maybe we’re making progress.