William A. Gordon: What Kent State's Memorial Lacks
Kent State's memorial to the May 4, 1970 shootings on its campus has spawned quite a few phony issues. The activists who sought the memorial complain that the university's decision to reduce its size dilutes the significance of the event. They also want another, larger memorial built in the city of Kent. Hardly anyone supports them on either issue, which apparently was never the point.
These issues were raised to keep May 4 in the public consciousness and in the news. Some activists fail to grasp the reality that with the passage of time, the tragedy has lost most of its relevance to life in America today. It means very little to students today. In fact, neither the activists nor anyone else on Kent State's payroll has given anyone a good reason to revisit the subject. If anything, the activism on campus, which focuses more on glorifying the student protests that preceded the tragedy, seems to have created a serious backlash against any kind of remembrance of Kent State.
The university still has one piece of unfinished business, though. That unfinished business has to do with the memorial's message, which, let us face it, is a platitude. The inscription "inquire, learn, and reflect" does not help tell anyone visiting the memorial what they should think about. The university could just as easily be telling today's students to think about anything, which could be the Peloponnesian War, the Treaty of Versailles, or for that matter my reproductive organs.
It is not too late for the university to actually say something about the killings, and what it is that we should remember about May 4. Enough time has passed, so the university does not need to keep changing the subject (as it still does with its annual anniversary symposia) or worrying about offending its potential customers: adults in Northeast Ohio who might send their children to Kent State.
While historians can argue about the tragedy's historical significance, there is at least a broad consensus about one aspect of May 4. Every official investigation and every independent study supported the bottom line conclusion of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest: that the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
Those words should replace "inquire, learn, and reflect" on the memorial. It was never intended to be an "unmemorial." It was intended to be a real memorial. And that brief statement is precisely what today's generation of students at Kent and every visitor to the campus should know about what happened at Kent State so long ago. It will give them something tangible to "inquire, learn, and reflect" about.
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