According to Jay P. Greene and colleagues, there has been a big decline in the proportion of new schools that are named after presidents and other historical figures. For instance, “In New Jersey, naming schools after people dropped from 45 percent of schools built before 1948 to 27 percent of schools built since 1988.” It is now especially common to name schools after geographical features or biological species (e.g., the 11 “Manatee Schools” in Florida).
This trend reminds me of the decline in two courses that predominated in American schools at mid-century: “civics” and “problems of democracy.” Both courses dealt regularly with controversy. Many people think that that’s why they were cut between 1965 and 1980. Likewise, it would be controversial to name a school after Robert E. Lee, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, or any of the historical figures who inspired school-namers 25 or 50 years ago.
But why are school systems more shy of controversy today? There was surely no lack of bitter political arguments back in the days of McCarthy and Wallace–or of Herbert Hoover and Huey Long. I don’t know the answer, but I can think of some theories:
1. Local elites were more secure in the past, partly because their communities were often homogeneous and stood behind them, partly because there was less power in state and federal agencies, and partly because citizens were generally more deferential to authority. Thus a school board in the South could name a school after Jefferson Davis without worrying about controversy. It was not that everyone in America felt the same way about Confederate history. It was rather than a local school board could make a decision and no one would be able to do anything about it–not minority citizens within the district, not the national media, and not state or federal officials. (By the way, Jefferson Davis is just an example. Another district could name a school after a liberal icon like Fiorello La Guardia or Walter Reuther without worrying that those figures were seen as communists elsewhere.)
2. We are more shy of controversy as a people, and this is a sign of declining civic virtue. We have retreated to consumerism and celebrity culture because disagreeing about important matters is hard work. Yet we cannot engage in the public realm unless we risk disagreement. (This is a plausible theory, but I have never seen any data about trends in tolerance for controversy.)
3. The nature of controversy has shifted. Adults were relatively comfortable when teenagers debated unions, wars, unemployment, communism, and the New Deal. They are uncomfortable with discussions of abortion, gay marriage, and sexual harassment. These topics are more central to politics than they once were. You might ask: what has this shift got to do with the naming of schools? In some cases, there’s a pretty direct link. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt (whose name graces many American schools) took liberal positions on sexual and gender issues. In other cases, the link may be more obscure, but it still matters. For instance, some Americans line up as conservatives today because of social issues, such as abortion. Perhaps they distinguish between conservative and liberal historical figures and do not want their schools named after the liberals–even though men like Lincoln and FDR had little to say about today’s social issues. Likewise, liberals who are basically motivated by social issues may not want their schools to be named for dead white men who said conservative things about sexuality and gender. Manatees (which say nothing at all) are safer for everyone.