July 3, 2007

What's in a Name?

On the eve of our most civic of national holidays, the prodigious Jay Greene has published a new “study” entitled, “What’s in a Name? The Decline in the Civic Mission of School Names." Perhaps this is a scholarly attempt to kick start the return of presidential naming of schools, sort of like a more inclusive version of the Reagan Legacy Project. Unfortunately, it comes across as more of a slapdash and wildly off the mark lament that schools are no longer named for Presidents (or individuals, generally, for that matter.) I can’t make heads or tails of a report whose most memorable factotum is that there are twice as many schools in Florida named after manatees as there are for George Washington. Greene attaches big significance to this. I, on the other hand, can appreciate that manatees have been indigenous to Florida for 45 million years, while George Washington wasn’t.

Greene blames the trend against presidential school names on school boards unwilling to spend the political capital necessary to get the names approved. Which may be true, but not in my hometown, where there was a bruising fight and lingering resentment over naming the new high school for Bayard Rustin. I would question whether it is even wise for school boards to engage in such needless fights when there are plenty of other, larger, more meaningful battles to be fought.

But Greene then stretches the argument beyond the breaking point to assert that, “shrinking from a fight over naming schools may be symptomatic of a broader problem with civic education. To teach civics effectively, schools have to be willing to take a stand.”

I would argue the opposite. Indeed, I am doing so right now. I would suggest that contrary to Greene’s analysis, the controversy over naming schools indicates a level of broad based civic involvement that is perhaps too effective. Thus, we get schools named for inanimate objects that have never managed to offend an especially active special interest group. Rather than blaming spineless district leaders, it is entirely plausible that the dearth of presidentially-named schools is evidence of a too-civically involved constituency.

Of course, what do I know. My daughter’s elementary school in suburban Maryland is named for a deceased US Senator from Hawaii. Only in the Beltway!

For a more comprehensive and thoughtful examination of civic education in public schools, I offer you NASBE’s report on Revitalizing the Civic Mission of Schools for your Independence Day reading.

Have a happy and safe 4th. See you next week.