It’s been nearly a decade since Brian Kisida, Jonathan Butcher, and I produced our study on trends in names given to schools. In it we documented a stark decline in the naming of schools after people. Instead, schools are increasingly given inoffensive nature names, like Hawk’s Bluff or Mesa Vista. New school names are more likely to sound like herbal teas or day spas than to honor accomplished leaders, educators, scientists, or artists. There are now more schools in Florida named after manatees than George Washington, and more schools in Arizona named after road runners than Thomas Jefferson.
We lament this decline in naming schools after people because we see these names as civic education opportunities. Communities can use school names to convey to their children the values they hold dear and to provide models of people who embodied those values. Of course, no person is perfect, so controversy may erupt over the flaws in school honorees. In addition, communities may fight over which values they hold most dear and which people best personify those values. We suggested in our report that the decline in naming schools after people stemmed from school boards becoming increasingly unwilling to expend political capital over school names to serve civic goals about which they increasingly don’t care. Basically, they have abdicated their civic responsibility to avoid anything that rattles their smooth political control.
If you were unpersuaded by this explanation for why school boards shy away from naming schools after people, I’d like to refer you to an article in today’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette about the naming of two new schools, Osage Creek Elementary and Creekside Middle, in the Bentonville School District, which is home to the Walmart headquarters. A few of the board members objected that neither school was named after a person:
Quinn also argued in favor of naming at least one of the schools after a person, which gives students and teachers someone to celebrate and rally around. He cited former teacher Mary Mae Jones, after whom an elementary school is named.
“I thought, she’s a powerful example of someone who has done something meaningful for the fastest growing and hopefully best district in the state,” Quinn said.
Lightle agreed, saying there are people who would provide good namesakes. He mentioned Hattie Caraway, an Arkansas woman who was the first woman elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate.
But the majority sided with Board President Travis Riggs:
Riggs, the board president, said he generally opposes naming schools after people.
“I just think when you do that, you are going to offend somebody,” Riggs said. “I just don’t want to offend people.”
Well, at least he’s honest. But with comments like this Riggs and his majority on the Bentonville School Board are sounding like Capt. Beatty in Fahrenheit 451 when he tells Montag:
The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! …
Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.