Political scientist Jay Greene and colleagues are busy viewing with alarm the fact that few schools these days are named after presidents, or indeed after people at all. (Here’s their op-ed; here’s their full article, with a hat tip to Utne Web Watch’s email “Short Takes”; teacherblogger Ryan’s opinion here.)
“Last year, the Fayetteville, Arkansas, public school district closed its aging Jefferson Elementary School, replacing it with a shiny new building on the other side of the highway. The new building needed a name; the school board could have transferred the Jefferson name along with the students but did not do so. Or they could have chosen the name of another president; for example, they could have honored Bill Clinton, who had been a law professor at the university in Fayetteville and later became governor and then president. But if Clinton was thought inappropriate for a school name, the board could have honored the late J. William Fulbright, who hailed from Fayetteville, graduated from its university, and was the university’s president before serving five terms in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, there is no shortage of people the board could have chosen to honor. Instead, they chose to name the school ‘Owl Creek,’ after a small ditch with a trickle of water that runs by the school.”
Greene et al. did a seven-state survey of school names to confirm that this anecdote is representative. Then they stretched to connect this with US schools’ dismal performance in civics. Then they stretched again to connect it with the fact that many school boards are elected (rather than appointed by mayors) and that those elections are often on separate special-purpose election days. Perhaps unintentionally adding bad rhetoric to weak argument, they borrowed that old, tired environmentalist metaphor, claiming they’ve found a dead canary in the coal mine.
If I were a student, I’d rather be able to debate the merits of presidents without being put in the position of seeming to attack my own school. You tell me: is “Ronald Reagan Elementary School” a teachable moment? Or just a sneaky way to enshrine a particular point of view? And before you answer, consider “William Jefferson Clinton High School.”
And if naming a school after a natural feature suggests that over the long haul we depend more on nature than on particular big-name leaders…what’s the problem with that?