The San Francisco School-Renaming Debate Is Not About History

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tags: San Francisco, public history

News last week that the San Francisco Board of Education—a group of seven elected commissioners charged with shaping policy—had voted, 6–1, to rename forty-four San Francisco schools came with the shock and panic of an unexpected quiz. Some of the names on the Board’s verboten list, meant to prune symbols of racism and white supremacy, merit the scrutiny. Thomas Jefferson—of Jefferson Elementary School—was a President and an early architect of this country; he was also, famously, a slaveholder who preyed on his slaves. These two facts are weighed in most assessments of his legacy. Other concerns are more roundabout. Clarendon Elementary, named for Clarendon Avenue, on which it sits, will lose its name because, as the Board of Education explained in a spreadsheet, the name “can be traced to a county in South Carolina, one of the 13 Colonies named for Edward Hyde Earl of Claredon [sic] impeached by the House of Commons for blatant violations of Habeas Corpus.” Robert Louis Stevenson, of Stevenson Elementary, gets the black spot for once publishing what the Board describes, no doubt fairly, as “a cringeworthy poem.” Everyone’s a critic now.

The list of blighted namesakes includes Union officers, Spanish missionaries tied to California’s colonization, and people who are probably quiz-night answers more than household names. (Two points to anybody who has heard of Frank McCoppin, a mayor of San Francisco for two years in the late eighteen-sixties.) Onlookers have been up in arms. Abraham Lincoln, of Lincoln High School—“not seen as much of a hero at all among many American Indian Nations,” the Board of Education says—got the boot, to the shock of blue voters. The conservative columnist Ross Douthat described such “radical projects” as the early stages of a mission-confused power grab by the left. It does not help that the Board seems to have been working off wrong information about the namesakes it axed. (Paul Revere, of Revere K-8, was blackballed for “the colonization of the Penobscot,” apparently due to confusion about his role in an eponymous battle with the British.) Nor did it help that no one offered better names. Alarmed activists have been trying to drum up support to recall the Board, and the city’s mayor, London Breed, has wondered publicly whether it doesn’t, perhaps, have some more important stuff to do.

Institutional renaming—the kind meant to acknowledge injustice, as opposed to the usual kind, meant to acknowledge a check—began as a focussed endeavor about five years ago, with a flurry of activism on liberal-arts campuses. Most targets then, such as slaveholders, were hard to defend, and the reëxamination was fair game, because rethinking and attention to the roots of things are meant to be what universities are all about. Last month, as part of a defense bill, the Senate approved a requirement to retitle military bases that take their names from Confederate leaders. That, too, seemed like a no-brainer: the military is based on loyalty and the upward flow of authority, and it’s weird to be saluting in a fort that honors someone who fought violently against the nation that you serve.

But loyalty, deference, and awareness are not always qualities in great supply among fourteen-year-old kids. (Many millennia in, it remains unclear what qualities are in great supply.) Do Lowell High School students lie awake fretting about James Russell Lowell, the nineteenth-century poet who, according to the Board of Education, was an abolitionist, but maybe the wrong kind? One’s hunch is that the kids know what adults on both sides of this conflict seem not to, which is that, barring major embarrassments, the random-seeming dead guy or gal with a name on your school is less important than your biology test tomorrow, or the prom upcoming, or the principles by which you’ll live your life. The years of basic education are relentlessly forward-looking: students, whatever their orientation, want to get on, get out of here, get into the world, where, they possibly sense, their energy is needed. It’s adults, haunted by the things they have or haven’t seen, who turn themselves to raking over fine points of the past.

The fruit of that attention is—and ought to be—a changing harvest. In their grander moments, journalists speak of their work as “the first draft of history.” (This idea seems to have sprung from the mind of George Fitch, a popular newsstand writer around the turn of the twentieth century.) The corollary rarely noted is that history has no final draft. The reëvaluation of character, conduct, and legacy isn’t a onetime corrective to past error—it’s the heart of all historical work. Historiography, the study of how the past is written, is important not because everybody did it wrong the first time but because ideas about the right way are perpetually changing, and the movement of those goalposts says as much about an era as the points put on the board.

Read entire article at The New Yorker