Thursday, January 28, 2021
On Tuesday night, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to remove the names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and other prominent figures from 44 public schools over concerns that the figures had “direct or broad ties to slavery, oppression, racism or the ‘subjugation’ of human beings.” It’s tempting simply to roll our eyes and dismiss this as San Francisco playing up to its caricature, but these renaming debates will continue to swirl in cities across the country. Is there an intellectually coherent and morally prudent path to follow?
Yes. In the simplest terms, the renaming debate should explore whether a school's name causes reasonable observers to question the school’s commitment to the core values of its educational mission, not whether the historical figure’s behavior aligned with those values in every single respect. We need to avoid the extreme positions on both sides.
At one extreme, it is a mistake to dismiss these debates categorically as examples of political correctness run amok. Our decisions to honor particular individuals – and to ask families to entrust their children to schools that reflect those decisions – have real impact on well-being. For example, a Native American friend of mine explained that the abuse children of her community experienced in the assimilationist white boarding schools they were forced to attend created a distrust of schools that has extended across generations. As a result, academic success was not celebrated or encouraged when she was growing up.
So imagine being a Native American student asked to attend Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, named after the Minnesota governor who called for the extermination of the Dakota and persecuted the tribe in various ways. What message would you absorb every day walking into a building emblazoned with Ramsey’s name?
While my daughter was a student at Ramsey, the students successfully advocated to change the school’s name to honor Alan Page, the first African-American justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. The students delved into history, evaluated the pros and cons, and persuaded the school board. I fully supported that decision.
At the other extreme, moral purity cannot be the standard for honoring historical figures. One of my personal heroes is Martin Luther King Jr., and he had some pretty significant moral failings; nevertheless, we honor him because the legacy of his public witness was transformational for our nation. Or consider Abraham Lincoln. We are ignoring history if we insist that his primary legacy was his failure to change the U.S. government’s relationship with Indian tribes, rather than courageous action to end slavery and preserve the Union.
Historical analysis requires us to evaluate the entire arc of a person’s life and work. We need to demonstrate empathy – the Ramsey name didn’t bother me until I took time to listen to the experiences of Native Americans in Minnesota – but we also need to exercise reason. If we’re incapable of recognizing that Abraham Lincoln is worthy of honor because of his positive contributions to the American story, we are on a very troubling path. If your feelings about Lincoln are just as valid as the historical facts about Lincoln, we’re not far from the post-truth world of QAnon.
If every interpretation of a contested social symbol is equally valid, there’s really nothing to talk about. History becomes another battlefield in our never-ending culture war. We still have to settle the contest, of course, and we’ll do it through raw power. That’s not a recipe for social cohesion, robust pluralism, or a historically literate citizenry. It’s a recipe for chaos.