Last week, Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at the Naval Academy. There, he stated that “our ancestors tamed a continent,” and he followed this statement up by adding, “we are not going to apologize for America.” What does this mean? What does it mean to “tame” a continent? What does it mean to be so sure of your achievements that you do not find any reason to “apologize” for America? We must interrogate this language within an historical context and specifically look at the the way it espouses ideas of power and subjugation, marginalizing those who our ancestors “tamed” and those with essentially built this nation with their sweat and tears while enslaved.
Words, simply put, matter! The lexicon that we use to describe events or refer to individuals carry weight and meaning beyond what we may consider. On this blog, I have written about this topic numerous times, most recently in the post “Our Linguistic Entanglements.” Lately, I’ve still been thinking about this topic, especially when I teach my literature courses. There, I make consciously make the effort to use “enslaved individuals” when referring to people who suffered under the institution of slavery. I say “conscious effort” here because I am constantly training myself to think about the ways that my word choice affects others.
In my last post, I looked at the opening paragraph of the University of Georgia’s 1785 charter and how it relates to some common threads running through the early republic. Today, I want to take a moment and look at a section from Thomas R. Dew‘s “An Address Delivered before the Students on William and Mary at the Opening of he College, on Monday, October 10th, 1836.” In his speech to the students at William and Mary, Dew discusses a wide range of issues, even commenting on the fact that the students are sons of slaveholders and have a responsibility to uphold those ideals. This is an important aspect of the speech that needs discussion, but it is not what I want to focus on today. Instead, I want to zero in on two paragraphs where Dew responds to people who claim that colleges should focus on those skills (STEM in this case) that lead to vocations after graduation. This debate continues today, and I think it is interesting to see that the argument existed during the early years of American higher education.