In efforts to address the wrongs of the past, the United States has become divided over the issue of historical representation. While the majority agrees that Confederate relics ought not to be commemorated in the contemporary United States because of their racist connotations and history and cheered when they were put down, many wonder if renaming institutions serves the same effect.
For instance, at Princeton University, the Black Justice League demanded that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” At UC Berkeley, some asked for the renaming of Barrows Hall, home of the political science, sociology and ethnic studies departments, because David Prescott Barrows, who the building was named after, was an avid colonizer. The name “Berkeley” itself is entrenched in colonial history despite new recognition the city and campus have created as a bastion of liberal progress.
“Berkeley” commemorates George Berkeley, a great philosopher of the early modern period. Born in Ireland, he visited the New World in 1728 at Newport, Rhode Island, believing Europe was in spiritual decay. Here, he thought, was hope for a new golden age: “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
While we can disparage the blatantly colonialist undertones of his statement, we can also acknowledge and agree with a call for progress. Notions of “advanced civilization” and “Western enlightenment” have taken new meanings in contemporary society. What George Berkeley envisioned for America differs from our own visions, now that America is striving to be more diverse, tolerant and respectful of all backgrounds.
As students and as residents of the city of Berkeley, we have an obligation to understand our past in order to prefigure a better present. Without knowing the man behind the name, in some respects, we are debilitated from assessing ourselves. We cannot gauge a sense of progress if we are unaware of the beginning, because we have no vantage point to compare holistically from past to present to what the future holds for us. Exploring and learning more about the name “Berkeley” presents a unique opportunity for us to improve ourselves through knowledge of how Berkeley existed before our time and whether the changes to this place have been improvements or steps backward.
George Berkeley aimed to secure the good of the commons through emphasis and expansion on the arts and education. The founders of the University of California shared similar values: at Founders Rock in 1866, lawyer-financier Frederick Billings was reminded of George Berkeley’s “empire” line.
What George Berkeley intended was a place for a “College in the Americas” — a haven for education and progress. But colonial history inevitably taints the legitimacy of his claims when millions of indigenous people, Black slaves, and nonwhite laborers were subsequently oppressed as a result of the “Manifest Destiny.”
Though George Berkeley’s philosophy was rooted in racist colonialism, the sentiment he expressed was movement toward progress. Even if the city and university are named after this man, we may still be able to decolonize this space.
When confronted with the issue of renaming, we have to ask whether we are renaming because of inherent hypocrisy or out of acknowledgment of the name’s power over us. Barrows Hall, though imbued with the name of a racist, contradictorily hosts departments promoting ethnic diversity in education. For Berkeley, the city and campus, the notion of progress is malleable and subject to amendments that will better reflect our current values of decolonization and anti-racism.
Despite a painful past, Berkeley now stands proud and strong as a center for writers, intellectuals and artists. UC Berkeley, though flawed in its efforts, strives to be safe space, acts as a proponent for equal rights, exists as a haven for environmental protection activists and lives as a promoter of diversity and peace.
Here is proof that we can recognize the mistakes of the past and try to move forward. We possess the power to change our legacy that started with a name. George Berkeley envisioned an ideal world according to his tenets and beliefs, and now we are living up to his name by rewriting our own values as our notion of progress has shifted to include “liberty and justice for all.”