In late January, the School Names Advisory Committee of San Francisco’s Board of Education voted six to one to rename 44 of the district’s 121 schools, with the goal of ridding the public sphere of any names that might call to mind racism or sexism. Among the names targeted for replacement: George Washington (owned slaves), Abraham Lincoln (encouraged settlement of the West; authorized mass execution of Sioux warriors), Robert Louis Stevenson (once used the word Japanee instead of Japanese in a poem), and U.S. Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (it’s complicated).
The committee’s process was short on historical research or consultation — one committee member dismissed the very notion, saying, “We don’t need to belabor history” — or logic. The decision to deep-six Lincoln took five seconds. A school named for Malcolm X was spared despite its namesake’s early career as a pimp.
This show of civic self-righteousness made headlines both local and national. In The Atlantic, Gary Kamiya — who has studied and written extensively about San Francisco history — was unsparing: The renaming decision was inconsistent, uninformed, a “holier-than-thou crusade,” “a joke.” Not to mention shockingly expensive. (All that signage, for starters.)
The San Francisco denaming is only the latest in a string of such decisions. In January 2020, UC Berkeley changed the name of its law school from Boalt Hall to UC Berkeley School of Law, citing the newly discovered racist writings of namesake attorney John Henry Boalt. In June 2020, Princeton University voted to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school because of the former president’s “racist thinking and policies.” We can expect more of the same elsewhere, as boards and legislatures attempt to redress historical wrongs (one perspective) or impose a political-correctness agenda (a counter-perspective).
I have a modest proposal for all of these public bodies: Stop naming things after people, living or dead. No schools. No streets. No courthouses. No fountains. Just quit it.
I am aware that tradition is not on my side here. The custom of naming things after people goes back a long way in the United States. Harvard University (founded in 1636) was named for John Harvard, a clergyman who left money for its establishment when he died at age 31. Many schools are named for Horace Mann (1796–1859), who is considered the father of public education. A whole state, Pennsylvania, is named for Sir William Penn (1621–1670), who never ventured to the New World. It was his son, also named William, who actually made the voyage and founded the colony; he had wanted to call the place “New Wales” or simply “Sylvania,” which means “forest,” but King Charles II insisted on naming it after young William’s father, a staunch Royalist. The elder Penn lived in London next door to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who described his neighbor as a “mean fellow” and a “false knave.” Maybe we should consider denaming Pennsylvania.
Here is the point: Once we attach a human being’s name to an institution, we’re stuck with that human’s whole messy story. While it’s instructive to read about and learn from that story, we can (and should) do it without turning the person’s name into an object of civic reverence.
But, you ask, what about philanthropists? Don’t they deserve naming rights?
That’s easy. They do not.
A gift is a gift. Writing a check only if the recipient agrees to display your name in 20-foot letters is something else. It’s blackmail. Go ahead and name your own foundation after yourselves, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, but it doesn’t belong on San Francisco General Hospital, which is run by the city’s Department of Public Health. Note the word public.
But if we can’t name buildings after people, you cry, whatever shall we name them?
Also easy! You name them after anything that isn’t human.
Birds are nice. I’d like to see a Tanager Elementary School. A Night Heron Vocational Academy. An Egret University. Go Plumes!
Landmarks work, too. There’s a Palisades High School in Los Angeles, a Skyline High School here in Oakland, California
You could name your school after a specialization, such as Bronx High School of Science. Oakland Technical High School was designed in 1914 to resemble the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They could have named it “Edison” or “Whitney,” but thankfully they avoided the whole dead-white-male problem and came up with something timelessly appropriate. San Francisco had the right idea, in 1982, when it established a public School of the Arts (SOTA). In 2010, it was renamed Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, in recognition of the Japanese-American sculptor and California native who had campaigned for the school’s establishment. I like Asawa’s work, and she may have gotten a kick out of having her name attached to a school. (She died in 2013.) But I’d rather see a plaque about her life and art books in the library than her name on the façade.
Numbers make splendidly neutral names. Generations of New York City schoolkids have proudly claimed P.S. 135 (or whatever) as their alma mater. Banks and churches have long used ordinal numbers; I’m especially fond of Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Bank .
I’m not doctrinaire. If you have a law firm, go ahead and name it Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, after your esteemed founders. If you’re a billionaire and your ego will wilt if your surname isn’t embellishing your hotel, knock yourself out. But elsewhere we’re overdue for some disruption. Public institutions should honor the public, not one inconsistently admirable individual.
Oh, and while we’re at it? Let’s get rid of statues of people, too.