When a school board ignores history

The San Francisco Unified School District will change the name of 44 schools that honor historical figures, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, Winfield Scott, Edward Everett, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Francis Scott Key, Diane Feinstein, Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Junipero Serra, Philip Sheridan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Daniel Webster. Read this spreadsheet for explanations.

Over at Mission Local, a San Francisco news website, Joe Eskenazi notes that the school board’s decisions were based on research from Wikipedia and History Channel “Top-10” lists. Here is a taste of his piece:

These are embarrassing, avoidable, and credibility-destroying errors. That’s a shame, because many of the names suggested by the committee are out-and-out no-brainers; if engaged earnestly, most San Franciscans could probably be convinced to accept a lot of these changes.

But that didn’t happen, and this is what you get when you perfunctorily cut-and-paste material from sources that would not be acceptable for a junior high school oral report, and then misstate and misinterpret even that paltry material. 

This could have been prevented by the hiring of a 20-year-old intern fact-checker, of the sort that has saved many prestigious magazine writers from ruin. Or, perhaps, by consulting a historian who knows what he or she is talking about. 

Not only did that not happen, but committee chair Jeremiah Jeffries ridiculed the notion of consulting a historian:

What would be the point? History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so, we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. We’re not debating that. There’s no point in debating history in that regard. Either it happened or it didn’t, as historians have referenced in their own histories. So, I don’t think there’s a discussion about that. And so, based on our criteria, it’s a very straightforward conversation. And so, no need to bring historians forward to say – they either pontificate and list a bunch of reasons why, or [say] they had great qualities. Neither are necessary in this discussion.

Seriously? My first-year history students know that history is more than whether “it happened or it didn’t.”

Unlike the San Francisco school district, Eskenazi did his homework. His article includes quotes from several historians.

Here is Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association: ““Yes, there should have been historians involved….Whenever decisions are made, there should be people who can provide context and facts. We’ve learned this with covid.” 

Here is Cassandra Good of Marymount University: “If your local government was making a policy decision on science or medicine, they’d ask scientists or doctors.” 

Here is Nicole Maurantonio of the University of Richmond: “The decision not to include historians in the process seems misguided — and assumes a political agenda that is not necessarily fair….To ignore historians suggests that the actors involved are intent on privileging a version of the past that might fit a particular set of interests that might or might not align with history.”

Here is Eric Foner of Columbia University: “If you can only name schools after people who were perfect, you will have a lot of unnamed schools….Lincoln is a difficult character to assess. His greatness, in my view, is his ability to grow. He held very different views at the end of his life than earlier.”

Here is Leon Litwack of the University of California-Berkeley: “This is taking things too far….Lincoln is one of our great presidents. Maybe the greatest. I am very supportive of the efforts to remove the names of slave-holders. I never thought about the possibility this could include people like Lincoln.”

Read Eskanazi’s entire piece here.