With shopping period firmly in the rear-view mirror and tons of exams to study for and papers to write, the relief that is "Fall Weekend" could not come sooner. Yet "Fall Weekend" has been plagued by heaps of controversy surrounding the naming and meaning of this one day off from classes.
Last year the University decided to rename Columbus Day "Fall Weekend." This symbolic first step was an attempt by the University to appease Native American rights activists and was largely approved by the students. By changing the name of the holiday but not its date observed, the University has put the day's status in limbo.
People I have spoken to often use the two names interchangeably. Even Brown's Web site uses both names. The Medical School's Web site specifically mentions that there is no class on Columbus Day.
The reason students and faculty keep calling the holiday Columbus Day is perhaps just the result of habit, in much the same way that upperclassmen drop the last zero from the end of course numbers. More likely, it marks the fact that nothing really has changed. If the University really wanted to stop celebrating Columbus Day, it could have given a day off on a different date altogether.
Complete indifference would make Columbus Day a day like any other. This is not a unique idea. At Penn, for example, students will have a day off the following weekend.
Yet a policy of indifference does little justice to Native American groups. Even now, with Columbus Day nominally altered, Native Americans have lost a cause of protest in which to express their deserved anguish with the system of genocide and imperialism carried out by Columbus and subsequent European explorers. As long as Columbus Day was an issue on campus, Native American advocates had a forum of discussion through which to express their perspective. Now that the discussion is over, there has been little to no debate on the wider issues of discrimination or remembrance of past European misdeeds.
In the University's defense, they did establish the ambiguously named "Roots Week," which I am assured has something to do with America's colonial legacy. It sounds like a good first step, and I encourage the University to expand on the concept.
However, if the University truly wanted to support Native Americans, it should do so overtly and with pride. The city of Berkeley, Calif., displayed their displeasure with Columbus by renaming the second Monday in October "Indigenous People's Day." By turning Columbus Day on its head, the University could reignite the public discussion over the meaning of Columbus Day.
Let's face it: as is, no one is happy. Italian-Americans and their sympathizers will take issue with the name "Fall Weekend" even if Columbus Day is still a day off from classes. Meanwhile, while those who believe that Columbus Day is a misnomer (how can you discover a land where millions already live?) may be placated, the distinction between Columbus Day and Fall Weekend is only nominal at best.
Therefore, if the University is to continue with the name "Fall Weekend," it should specifically not be observed on Columbus Day. This way, students will constantly be reminded of the change every time they glance at a calendar. Even more acutely, the physical act of attending class on the second Monday in October would become an act of protest against colonialism and imperialism. Having class on Columbus Day presents an opportunity for professors and students to talk about the issues in a classroom setting — a much more fitting way to observe the day than going home for the weekend.
The only reasonable issue with changing the weekend altogether is that it would be an inconvenience for professors whose children have the day off . Since Providence public schools and many others in the surrounding area are closed in observance of Columbus Day, this is a fair point. However, local public schools are also closed on Veterans Day, which is currently not observed by the University. Given the choice between these two national holidays, I would rather recognize the contributions of our fighting men and women than of the instigators of colonization.
Additionally, since many high schools have off, think how many prospective students and friends would visit if Columbus Day were a normal day of classes. With application deadlines fast approaching, this could be one of the last opportunities to showcase Brown. Changing the date of Fall Weekend is an opportunity with many rewards for students, here and from afar.
The thought behind calling Columbus Day "Fall Weekend" was a small step forward in correcting past oppression, though it was superficial at best. Right now, the important discussions over the history and meaning of Columbus's so-called discovery have been lost while the holiday remains mostly unchanged. However, we can correct the record by changing the date of "Fall Weekend" entirely. Doing so will make an important political statement and improve campus life. We would still have a day off, just a different one.
Ethan Tobias '12 plans to go to Boston for "Indigenous People's Day." He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias@brown.edu.