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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

School Renaming Shouldn’t Be an Exercise in Ideology and Ignorance

By Rick Hess — March 15, 2021 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.

Decisions regarding renamings and cancellations are typically made behind closed doors, making it hard to gauge how much deliberation goes into them (as with the recent, deservedly controversial decision to cease publishing six Dr. Seuss titles). In a bit of a twist, however, another such push has played out more publicly: the San Francisco school board’s move to strip existing names, including Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein, from 44 schools. Because that process (momentarily on hold) unfolded over Zoom, outsiders like my AEI colleague Greg Weiner were able to document the deliberations of the School Names Advisory Committee. The transparency was illuminating.

For starters, the committee’s criteria for renaming are remarkably elastic, including “anyone directly involved in the colonization of people,” individuals who “exploit workers/people,” and those “connected to human-rights or environmental abuses.” It’s hard to imagine a principled or apolitical way to decide who qualifies, even if the committee approached its work diligently. Alas, such diligence was not on display.

When the committee chair took up the Paul Revere K-8 school and asked whether Revere met the criteria for renaming, a member answered in the affirmative, declaring that Revere “stole Indigenous lands.” Weiner recounts, “The chair asks for evidence, since Revere was a silversmith best known for warning of the British invasion.” In response, the member allowed that “it’s more about the storyline” (because Revere apparently represents a narrative of American oppression).

The chair pointed out that the criteria for renaming require individual wrongdoing rather than “storylines.” In response, the member turned to the web and then enthused, “I just found something right now,” reporting having just discovered that Revere, as an artillery officer in the Penobscot Expedition, was “directly connected” to colonizing the Penobscot Nation. The member added, “I found it on history.com, which is pretty credible.” Umm. As Weiner points out, “The Penobscot Expedition was a naval armada sent by Massachusetts against the British in 1779. Fighting occurred around the Penobscot River. It had nothing to do with the Penobscot Nation. Whatever.”

This was far from the only instance of committee members permitting their enthusiasm to override attention to historical fact. When they came to Sanchez Elementary, for example, one member spoke up on why the name should be stripped: “Colonizer, California missions, blah blah blah.” The inanity would be funny under other circumstances. But as Weiner drolly notes, “They had the wrong Sanchez.”

In the case of Thomas Edison Charter Academy, it was suggested that the school met the renaming criteria because Edison supposedly “had a fondness for electrocuting animals,” including “Topsy, a well-loved circus elephant.” There was a problem in that Edison’s alleged electrocution didn’t obviously fit the criteria, although one committee member suggested that maybe Edison could be removed for “environmental abuses.” Set aside the make-it-up-as-you-go standard; Weiner observes that Edison actually had “nothing to do with Topsy’s electrocution.”

Now, I’m not reflexively opposed to renaming schools. As RJ Martin and I wrote last June, for instance, we should absolutely rename the 100-odd schools named after Confederate generals and leaders. We noted, “Not even a single child should have to attend a school named for those who took up arms against our nation in defense of slavery.” Of course, we also observed, “At the same time, assessing how and if long-gone leaders should be honored in society today requires judgment and principle. . . . But there’s a difference between making room for imperfection and going out of our way to honor those who fought against American values.”

Schools should not be renamed cavalierly, with murky criteria or fake facts. Renaming should be a deliberative process that models the kind of civic seriousness we want our students to master. When it turns into a heedless exercise in ideology and ignorance, as it has in San Francisco, we all lose.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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