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Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco is slated for a name change. Photo credit: Associated Press

Grading the Effort to Rename Our Schools

By Joel P. Engardio

My elementary and high schools were named for once-prominent men who lived in Michigan in the 1800s. I never knew anything about them. I hope they weren’t bad men who supported racism, misogyny or the persecution of LGBTQ people.

San Francisco’s school board isn’t taking any chances. They want to rename up to a third of public schools that honor people now deemed “inappropriate.”

Many of the 44 schools slated for renaming involve obscure historical figures: Robert Louis Stevenson (author), Frank McCoppin (first Irish-born mayor of San Francisco), James Lick (land baron who inspired Ghirardelli chocolate). Some of the names are famous: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dianne Feinstein.

Gray mist of history
It’s reasonable to rename a school that celebrates a conquistador, colonizer or slave owner. But what if the sins against humanity are not as clear cut? What if the person managed to make the world better while not living perfectly?

The greatest humanitarians have biographical blemishes. Pioneering civil rights leaders didn’t always include women, undocumented immigrants and gay people in their advocacy. Are their names still worthy of praise?

Finding answers in the gray mist of history is a difficult task, even with the most rigorous process in place. It requires diligent research and objective analysis.

Flawed process
Yet the process of the school board’s renaming committee was “deeply flawed,” according to a study. Families for San Francisco, a nonprofit parent advocacy group, published a 21-page report that details how “excluding historians from the discussion led to factual errors, insufficient consideration of historical context, and subjective/inconsistent assessment of historical figures.”

The report documents how the committee relied on cursory Google searches and Wikipedia entries for its determinations, noting the irony that the school district “generally teaches high school students that Wikipedia should only be used as a place to find sources, never as a source itself.”

Better timing
Families for San Francisco said it supports reviewing and renaming schools based on today’s standard of appropriateness. They just want it done with a sound process — and with better timing. The school board president told the Chronicle that “people are going to be upset no matter when we do this.” But many parents are questioning why the renaming must be done mid-pandemic when schools are closed and everyone is struggling to make distance learning work.

Mayor London Breed backed parent concerns in a strong statement: “The fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our City. Not the name of a school. We are in a pandemic right now that is forcing us all to prioritize what truly matters. Conversations around school names can be had once the critical work of educating our young people in person is underway.”

Simple solution
Some schools certainly have names that need changing. But setting a criteria without triggering a slippery slope could be impossible. Everyone is imperfect, including the people who did the most good in the world.

Maybe we should just name the schools with numbers. Or after things like trees and flowers. Doing so would save the time and trouble of having to investigate the lives of imperfect people. And we could focus on more important issues facing our city and nation.

While the backgrounds of my elementary and high school namesakes are still a mystery (no information is listed on either school website), my middle school produces no anxiety. It was one of three where I grew up named for its location: North, South and Central.

Sometimes the best solution to a contentious problem is the simple one.

Originally published at https://www.engardio.com on January 10, 2021.

Forward-thinking + pragmatic Democrat, civil liberties advocate, award-winning journalist, Westside SF homeowner. My local views at www.engardio.com/issues

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