ASM Speaker Craig Steven Wilder Encourages Andover Students to Confront Their History

In his speech, Craig Steven Wilder noted both the Committee on Challenging Histories and the Colloquium class at Andover, both of which
highlight the research he discussed in his presentation.

Craig Steven Wilder, author and history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), addressed the Andover community during last Friday’s All-School Meeting (ASM). Wilder spoke on the history of American educational institutions and their ties to enslavement and the displacement of Native Americans.

To illustrate these ideas, Wilder used Erasmus Hall High School as an example. Located in Brooklyn, N.Y., Erasmus Hall High School was a former public high school tied closely to the Atlantic slave trade. 

“[Erasmus Hall High School] was also a school that wrapped itself in all sorts of myths. It created a myth of its Native American history, and it actively engaged, like much of New York, like much of the Northeast, in the process of erasure of its history with slavery. Those two things largely had to disappear, or, as you see here, they had to be caricatured in such a way as to render them meaningless, so that the myth of public education could supplant the reality of how we got to the public school, and how, in fact, limited access to education had been for most of American history,” said Wilder.

In response to a student question, Wilder continued, “We need to actually bring Native people into the discussion with us about what compensatory justice, what social justice, actually looks like. We can’t do that unilaterally, and if we attempt to do it unilaterally, we’ll publically open that wound rather than heal it. The claim to be an elite institution actually carries with it the obligation to lead through troubles and difficult times and to address that troubled and difficult past. At MIT, one of the things we’ve been struggling with is, if we are what we say we are, the world’s leading engineering [and] science university, then we also have to lead when it’s unpleasant, and we have to lead when it’s difficult.”

Wilder also claims the importance of thinking about how current actions impact future generations of students. By confronting the past face-on, institutions and members within will gain awareness of the consequences of their decisions.

“Once we think seriously and critically about the past, it almost forces us to be critical about the present and the future. All of our sins are not in the past, and in fact, the institutional structures that we’ve created, the institutional cultures that we’ve created from that past, actually tend to set us up to reproduce certain kinds of injustices over time rather than to solve them. So part of that, really self-reckoning, is thinking about the future. It’s thinking about what legacy are you leaving to the next generations of students who come through these institutions,” said Wilder.

Shreya Bajaj ’23 agreed with Wilder that honesty and acknowledgment of the past are crucial. As a member of the Committee on Challenging Histories at Andover, Bajaj researches the history of Andover and works on potential ways to address its past.

“During the Q&A, there was a question about what we, in the present, can do. And one of the things that he says is the first step is just to acknowledge it, we can’t, as these prestigious institutions, expect to be leaders in all the ways that suit us, and then hush up and not really take charge of our past and be open about that. So obviously, just recognizing the past and making it clear is not a goal. There’s so much more beyond that. But I think it’s a really important first step, as an institution being honest about our role and our history. And we can go forward from there,” said Bajaj.

Nafi Diagne ’26 finds Wilder’s responses to student questions helpful in personally relating to the topic. However, Diagne hoped that Wilder would relate more to Andover’s history during his speech.

“I asked a question about what other things we can do to acknowledge history because the speech was informative, but we need a way to implement what it was talking about into our lives. The speaker was talking about important stuff, but he didn’t find a way to relate it back to us, which made it a bit less interesting. I think [the] steps that can be taken are what he suggested—asking people who identify as the oppressed groups what they think can be done. Give them a voice. Face history head on instead of trying to conceal it,” said Diagne.