by Christopher Tillen, Staff Writer, December 2021
“Nobles was founded to send White Christian men to Harvard.” You might have heard this statement before. The walls and hallways of Shattuck Schoolhouse are adorned with pictures of White Christian graduates, teachers, and heads of school.
On the surface, these are just pictures, but they have a much deeper history. All these graduates have amazing accomplishments and stories, yet all of these perceivably-homogenous graduates also put up an image of a bygone era, one that doesn’t come close to matching the diverse community we have today.
Are these whitewashed photos harmful to the school or are they just a part of our history, a tradition we should be proud of?
Nobles was founded in 1866, but the first Jewish student, Jonathan Kozol, graduated in 1956. The first Black student, Robert J. Pinderhughes Jr, graduated in 1967. We didn’t go co-ed until 1974.
These photos reflect the observable lack of racial, gender, religious, and LGBTQ+ diversity of Nobles within the first 100 years of the institution. Moreover, despite the bounds and leaps that Nobles has made towards diversity in the present day, these pictures remain a significant focus in Shattuck. These pictures are ingrained in our community.
Many students feel that the photos are unrepresentative of the school’s current population. Sparsh Verma (Class I) said, “It’s tradition in a sense, but tradition isn’t always a good thing. It can be cool to look at major years of history, but I also think that none of these men look like me, none of these men grew up like me.”
In a school that has kids from many different backgrounds, the walls show men from one singular background. School Archivist Heidi Charles said, “What we’re seeing on our walls [are] our shadows from our past. We have not done a good job on updating those walls.”
Verma continued by commenting on the purpose of our school. He said, “Nobles was created as a means of preserving power for upper-class White men. […] If you look at it [the pictures] deeper, it’s a history lesson.”
Colin Levine (Class III) reflected on the difference between Nobles today and Nobles then, and said, “Today being at Nobles is an honor that you earn. Back then, it feels like it was just a legacy thing.”
This debate on the photos and their impact, both positive and negative, is not new to Nobles. In 1996, The Nobleman published a side-by-side (Vol. 86, No. 1) between former Math Faculty Chris Mabley (1969-1983, 1995-2006) (“Point: Honor School’s Tradition”) and English Faculty Alden Mauck (“Counterpoint: Live in the Now”). While Mabley emphasized honoring and upholding tradition, Mauck argued the need for Nobles to live in the present and address how these photos ostracized students that were either non-male identifying, non-Christian, people of color, or LGBTQ+.
Now, when interviewed for this piece, Mauck said, “With every photo showing White men, there are people going to the school currently who are not going to feel as comfortable.” Moreover, in his article, Mauck stated, “These photographs, so prominent in their placement, continue the White, male hierarchy of the school’s past into its present.”
Mauck emphasized how honoring our history in these photos could give way to something much more sinister. Additionally, Mauck describes the significance of where these photos are placed; they are front and center on all the Shattuck walls, a constant reminder to anyone in the alcoves.
A larger issue with these photos is the lack of context. Verma said, “You never get to see the full story. We don’t know what these people did.” While these photos preserve a legacy, they are still just photos without a story attached.
In order to provide one story, Mauck referenced the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), a 19th-century organization. Mauck said, “They [the IRL founders] were Nobles guys who grew up and went to Harvard. They were xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist.” Those men are up on our walls, but they are viewed as no different from the rest of their fellow alumni.
The bigger question now remains: should we take down these pictures or leave them hanging? Verma said, “Getting rid of them feels like we’re hiding our problems.” Mauck added, “It’s hard for the institution to figure out who we keep as part of the tradition and who do we push off to the side.”
On a different note, Levine said, “I would defend the general tradition of having every class’s graduation photo up. I would just shift it back so that older photos are less prominent.” Levin underscores the right of graduates to have their pictures featured.
A committee, referred to as the Walls Committee, was created to address this very issue at the end of the last school year. Charles said, “The school is aware of the lack of representation on the school walls.” She added, “We’ve discussed things such as, ‘Should we focus more on tradition or on artwork of current students?’”
While unable to comment on the next steps, Charles said that the committee considered a number of possible solutions. Some of these include rotating photographs and exhibits, creating interactive digital displays, and adding plaques to contextualize graduates with more controversial careers (such as the founders of the IRL).
A fantastic method of highlighting our current, diverse community is the pictures that Provost Bill Bussey curates around campus. These candid images of students in class and athletics highlight our vibrant school. However, these rotate, while the Shattuck walls remain constant.
Mauck proposed his own solution to this issue. He said, “I think there’s a way to have the other [older] photographs revolve too.” Mauck puts forth an idea where a certain class of students would be showcased one year while photos from other previous classes would come down for the year. In this manner, the old photos would be treated similarly to the new. In response to this, Verma said “I think it’s a very interesting idea. The only thing that I can see that’s wrong with this is that it [still] may glorify certain aspects of past Nobles students.”
In addition to shifting the photos back, Levine also said “I think it would be valuable to have a couple of days at the start of the year in English class to talk about Nobles’ history.”
How do we address these photos and confront our history while still honoring our institution? There isn’t a one size fits all solution. In order to address the photos and their impact, Nobles must face its past, present, and future.