Do We Learn From or Hide Our Past's Mistakes?
Often it seems the more negative the past, the more powerful the testimony.
In other, more public settings, it seems to work the other way around. Practices that are negative tend to be those things people and institutions want to deny or cover, lest a blemish in a history damage the opportunity for future benefit.
Doctored resumes, altered transcripts, revisionist histories – these all reflect a need to paint a better picture than the actual one.
Recently, a prominent university in our area has taken an interesting approach to its own history that could serve as a good model of historical responsibility and institutional integrity on many levels.
A couple of years ago, Emory University acknowledged and apologized for its role in slavery and focused attention to the issue in a conference that explored lessons to be learned from that history.A few months ago, it was discovered that data submitted by the university to a college ranking service was adjusted to reflect a more favorable profile.
Upon discovery, the issue was investigated and openly acknowledged with regret and a commitment to correct any misrepresentation.
In the past few weeks, a flagrant expression of anti-Semitism was brought to public attention by one of its victims.
Dr. Perry Brickman, now a retired Atlanta oral surgeon, was surprisingly told after his first year at Emory's dental school in 1952 that he had flunked out, in spite of excellent grades.
Other students, he later learned, were also dismissed or made to retake courses under false assessment.
Graduating later with honors from another dental school, and after a long and successful practice (personal note: he extracted my wisdom teeth 50 years ago, and my children's 25 years later), he interviewed a number of his fellow victims about this discrimination.
He produced a documentary on the experience through their eyes and memories.
The university has again experienced a bright and revealing light shining on a part of its past that it most certainly would prefer not to have.
Emory's president, James Wagner, has taken the lead in "doing the right thing" by helping the university community to ask what can be learned from this history that will help them have a better future.
"Institutions – universities – are as fallible as the human beings who populate them," he said, "and like individuals, universities need to remind themselves of the principles they want to live by. The discrimination against Jewish dental students undermined the academic integrity of the dental school and ultimately of Emory. I am sorry ... we are sorry."
A refreshing response in a time when unblemished images seem more important than substantial character, and apology is seen as a sign of weakness.
I couldn't help thinking of the work of ancient Israel's historians, who portrayed their history "warts and all" during their struggle with covenant faithfulness and political realities.
When Hilkiah "discovered" the "Book of the Law" during King Josiah's temple restoration work, their long departure from faithfulness was made explicitly clear.
One of only three kings of the entire divided kingdom to receive a passing grade from the historians, Josiah "tore his clothes" (2 Kings 22:11) upon hearing the words of the book and let the light of this exposure become the basis for the most significant reform movement of the period, earning him the rare praise of those who reflected on the time (2 Kings 23:25).
Perhaps the helpful insight from this connection is that perfection and faithfulness are not the same thing. Maybe faithfulness has more to do with how we deal with imperfections than it does with the illusion of their absence.
How many instances can we think of when a prophetic voice like that of Brickman has called attention to an imperfection, and an institutional leader like Emory's President Wagner has responded with a clear acknowledgment and a commitment to learn from what it has to teach? This seems to work for good on a personal, social, even national level.
Maybe it's better for image to be defined by integrity rather than the other way around.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.