The Honest Cowardice in School Naming

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.

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14 Responses to The Honest Cowardice in School Naming

  1. That would make a really cool blimp or Macy’s float.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Cowardice in the service of a “Brave” New World! At least Mustapha Mond had a creed he believed in and was willing to defend.

  3. sstotsky says:

    How does this argument work in the repicturing of who is on a $20 bill? Hamilton stays on the $10 bill, but Jackson is gone, despite Arthur Schesinger’s book on Jacksonian democracy and Jackson’s battle against the banks. Will that be removed from history textbooks, too?

    • I’m not taking a stand on who should be honored in school names or on currency. I’m just saying that these are opportunities for us to talk about what our values are and who best personifies those values.

      • sstotsky says:

        Let’s talk about what is being proposed, then. If Jackson is being removed on the grounds that he owned slaves, but we know that he also caused the “trail of tears” and fought the banks, I’m wondering if a picture of Sequoiah (I think that was his name) or another Cherokee should replace Jackson’s picture. Why Tubman? The Cherokee Nation was well-known for its efforts to promote literacy.

      • Greg Forster says:

        There’s no reason there needs to be a relationship between why we took the genocidal monster off our money and whom we put in his place. Also, there are plenty of other reasons to hate Jackson, so why insist on just that one? He did substantial damage to our national ethos of commitment to the rule of law (“let him enforce it”) and also moved us a good ways away from the Founders’ carefully constructed restraints on mobocracy. He was, let’s face it, the Trump of his day.

        As for Tubman, the best option would obviously have been Martin Luther King, but Tubman is still an excellent choice. Given the state of the political forces at the moment it’s a miracle we did this well. We kept Hamilton on the currency (just imagine the idea of taking Hamilton off the currency!) and honored an antislavery warrior. And one not in government to boot!

  4. sstotsky says:

    You are right, Greg, that there is no reason there has to be a relationship between Tubman and Jackson. Except for the fact that every article I’ve read on the change indicated that slave-owning was the reason for Jackson’s removal, with no mention of the Trail of Tears. Tubman was not a Jackson slave. But Jackson was responsible for the Trail of Tears. So why no mention of the Cherokees at all?

    • Greg Forster says:

      You may be reading the wrong articles. In any event, in the age of the Internet anyone can say what they want about what the “real” reason was. So I’m not sure what your expectations here are based on.

      • sstotsky says:

        The Globe talked about removal of Jackson for owning slaves. That reason will apply to a lot of pictures on bills. What was the “real” reason?

      • Greg Forster says:

        Who knows what the real reason was, or even if there was only one real reason rather than a combination of factors? That was my point.

  5. sstotsky says:

    Then we need a more comprehensive explanation for removing Jackson than we have been given. If slave-owning is a reason for removing Jackson, then how do we justify Washington or Jefferson on our bills?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Don’t hold your breath waiting for a “comprehensive explanation” of anything the federal government does.

      • sstotsky says:

        OK. If we can’t expect the gov to give a good explanation for anything it does, then keep it from doing anything. Three cheers for gridlock.

      • charliebelin says:

        Jackson is just the least favorable (currently) of all those on Bills. He’s not considered to be in the same league as our founding fathers, regardless of if they owned or didn’t own slaves. It really may have came down to ranking the most popular bill faces to the least and those in power decided Jefferson was the least.

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