Op-Ed

Wendell Berry: At UK, truth, history, law — and what ‘cannot be forgiven’

‘I’m not expecting everyone to like it.’ Artist reimagines controversial UK mural.

Artists Karyn Olivier and Jay C. Lohmann convert the dome ceiling of University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall entrance into public art to contextualize a controversial mural found within the building made by Ann Rice O'Hanlon in 1934.
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Artists Karyn Olivier and Jay C. Lohmann convert the dome ceiling of University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall entrance into public art to contextualize a controversial mural found within the building made by Ann Rice O'Hanlon in 1934.

If the O’Hanlon fresco at the University of Kentucky depicts historical events that actually happened, then it can be understood to be teaching what is true. It is not possible to justify a student’s objection to learning what is true. If, on the contrary, the fresco falsifies history, that is a lesson of another kind that a student also should learn. 

The only intellectually responsible question raised by the students’ objection to the fresco is that of its truth to history. 

If the university still has a history department, then a further question is why President Capilouto would conduct a long discussion about the fresco without calling in at least a couple of history professors to deal with the relevant historical questions. Would not that have been educational? 

The most important case that the objecting students have made, perhaps unintentionally, is for a course in Kentucky history to be mandatory for all students. 

The most important issue raised by President Capilouto’s agreement to cover the fresco pertains to the First Amendment. This really very fine work of art, like the university itself, is a public property. If the fresco is making a statement, as the president and the objecting students attest, then it is a public statement, and as such it is entitled to protection under the First Amendment – the same freedom that protects the speech of the objecting students. By what right does one public official, on his sole initiative, forbid a work of art to be viewed by the public to whom it belongs? This would be standard procedure in a dictatorship. It cannot be forgiven here. 

The president should also have brought along a couple of law professors. 

Wendell Berry of Port Royal is a poet, essayist, novelist, conservationist and farmer who was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2010.

 

Over 100 University of Kentucky students with the Black Student Advisory Council and Basic Needs Campaign met with Uk President Eli Capilouto on a number of issues and demands ranging from food insecurity to racism on campus.

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