Opinion letter to the editor

Commentary on MIT’s new course, MIT and Slavery

How should we acknowledge our history?

The recent revelation that William Barton Rogers owned slaves has prompted a proposal by President Reif that the MIT community examine not only Rogers’s actions, but the distasteful attitudes of some alumni of many decades past by means of a new course, MIT and Slavery.

No one, we hope, would advocate slavery today, but those who look at people’s actions in the somewhat distant past through the lens of majority, though not universally accepted, moral precepts of today are playing a self-destructive game. Is it legitimate to expect that our forebears should have anticipated the prevailing morality of today? If so, then we had better be concerned about our own actions and make an accurate forecast of the future, but how far forward? Should we try for a decade, a century, or go big for a millennium?

We could speculate that our descendants might vilify us for our power of life and death over animals, our unwillingness to live an eighteenth century lifestyle to avoid using fossil fuels, or our desire to watch violent contact sports. Are the accomplishments of ancient civilizations tainted by the pervasiveness of slavery centuries ago?

Oceans of blood and centuries of misery were needed to progress from the practices we no longer deem legitimate to those of our time, yet we commonly accept some, such as abortion, out of wedlock births and recreational drug use, which have been universally condemned in the past. We would be fools to believe that this road ends with us. There is virtually no dissent today that slavery was grossly immoral, but responsibility for slavery lies with the actors, who are long gone, as are the ones who waged the most violent struggle in our history to eradicate it.

I hope that the new course will not be a platform for projecting guilt forward or judgment backward in time. There is merit in acquiring and acknowledging facts from the past, but passing ex post facto moral judgement on them deprives us of a correct understanding of history, of human nature, and of our own state of being.

Bill Charles ’68